Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system – which normally protects its health by attacking foreign substances like bacteria and viruses – mistakenly attacks the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition also can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues.
Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.
Symptoms Rheumatoid arthritis
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
Tender, warm, swollen joints
Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
Fatigue, fever and weight loss
Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.
As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
About 40 percent of the people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don’t involve the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many nonjoint structures, including:
Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.
Causes of Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium — the lining of the membranes that surround your joints.
The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint.
The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.
Doctors don’t know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don’t actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.
Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
Your sex.Women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
Age. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins between the ages of 40 and 60.
Family history.If a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease.
Smoking.Cigarette smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease. Smoking also appears to be associated with greater disease severity.
Environmental exposures.Although uncertain and poorly understood, some exposures such as asbestos or silica may increase the risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis. Emergency workers exposed to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center are at higher risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Obesity.People who are overweight or obese appear to be at somewhat higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially in women diagnosed with the disease when they were 55 or younger.
Complications of Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of developing:
Osteoporosis.Rheumatoid arthritis itself, along with some medications used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your risk of osteoporosis — a condition that weakens your bones and makes them more prone to fracture.
Rheumatoid nodules.These firm bumps of tissue most commonly form around pressure points, such as the elbows. However, these nodules can form anywhere in the body, including the lungs.
Dry eyes and mouth.People who have rheumatoid arthritis are much more likely to experience Sjogren’s syndrome, a disorder that decreases the amount of moisture in your eyes and mouth.
Infections. The disease itself and many of the medications used to combat rheumatoid arthritis can impair the immune system, leading to increased infections.
Abnormal body composition. The proportion of fat compared to lean mass is often higher in people who have rheumatoid arthritis, even in people who have a normal body mass index (BMI).
Carpal tunnel syndrome.If rheumatoid arthritis affects your wrists, the inflammation can compress the nerve that serves most of your hand and fingers.
Heart problems.Rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses your heart.
Lung disease.People with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
Lymphoma.Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymph system.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. There is no one blood test or physical finding to confirm the diagnosis.
During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, redness and warmth. He or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
People with rheumatoid arthritis often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, or sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP), which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
Your doctor may recommend X-rays to help track the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in your joints over time. MRI and ultrasound tests can help your doctor judge the severity of the disease in your body.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But recent discoveries indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with strong medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
The types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you’ve had rheumatoid arthritis.
NSAIDs.Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Side effects may include ringing in your ears, stomach irritation, heart problems, and liver and kidney damage.
Steroids.Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Side effects may include thinning of bones, weight gain and diabetes. Doctors often prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve acute symptoms, with the goal of gradually tapering off the medication.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Common DMARDs include methotrexate (Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo), leflunomide (Arava), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine).
Side effects vary but may include liver damage, bone marrow suppression and severe lung infections.
Biologic agents.Also known as biologic response modifiers, this newer class of DMARDs includes abatacept (Orencia), adalimumab (Humira), anakinra (Kineret), certolizumab (Cimzia), etanercept (Enbrel), golimumab (Simponi), infliximab (Remicade), rituximab (Rituxan), tocilizumab (Actemra) and tofacitinib (Xeljanz).
These drugs can target parts of the immune system that trigger inflammation that causes joint and tissue damage. These types of drugs also increase the risk of infections.
Biologic DMARDs are usually most effective when paired with a nonbiologic DMARD, such as methotrexate.