In this condition factsheet:
The Facts on Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that causes the lining of your joints or other body areas to become inflamed. As it progresses, it further damages the tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and bone in your joints. It may also damage other areas of the body, including the lungs or blood vessels.
About 1% of the population has RA, with women about 3 times more likely than men to get it. Although it can occur at all ages, people most often develop RA between the ages of 25 and 50 years.
It was thought that children get RA (called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis or JRA), but it is now recognized to be a different set of diseases, collectively called juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
RA is a serious, usually progressive disease that can lead to severe disability, reduced quality of life, and shorter lifespan. Fortunately, treatment and management strategies developed over the last 40 years have led to much improved lives, longevity, and outcomes for many RA patients.
There is currently no cure for RA.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's immune system fails to recognize its own tissue, and views it as a foreign invader. In the case of RA, the immune system attacks the joints and tissue, causing long-term damage.
It's hard to determine who will develop RA. It is believed that RA may be caused by a combination of factors, including genetic risk and environmental factors such as a bacterial or viral infection.
Symptoms and Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can either develop gradually or begin without warning as a sudden, painful episode. The first signs of it often feel like the flu, with general muscle and joint pain. Just after getting up in the morning, or following a period of inactivity, the joints will feel stiff. This can last for under an hour but, as the RA gets worse, the discomfort will last for longer periods.
The disease begins by attacking joints in the hands, wrists, and feet, and can later spread to the elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, hips, knees, and ankles. As a result of being painfully inflamed, joints can become deformed as the tissue in them is destroyed. Up to 30% of people develop hard lumps (nodules) under their skin, around bony areas such as the knees and elbows. If tear and saliva glands are affected, it can result in dry eyes and a dry mouth. Because RA is a systemic disease, it can also affect the heart, lungs, and eyes.
A hallmark of RA is that it is usually symmetrical, while most other types of arthritis are not. Symmetrical means that if a joint on one side becomes affected, within a relatively short time (i.e., days, weeks, a month or two), the corresponding joint on the other side of the body will also become involved.RA also commonly accelerates and worsens atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), so your doctor may also monitor for risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. Your doctor may also advise you to not smoke. Treatment for atherosclerosis is very important.
One-third of sufferers have a mild form of RA with very few flare-ups of their symptoms. 10% might only have one painful episode and then go for a long period with no other signs of the disease. For many, though, symptoms only get worse over time.