Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview
RA Symptoms and Causes
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder in which your body's immune cells mistakenly attack your joints. This abnormal response causes inflammation than can damage joints and organs, such as the heart. Mostly commonly, RA affects the joints in your hands and feet, but it can also, for example, affect your spine.
The Arthritis Foundation estimates that RA affects 1.5 million Americans. Women are nearly three times more likely to develop the disease than men. In women, RA commonly begins between ages 30 to 60, while in men, it often occurs later in life.
The good news is that patients with RA today have an easier time with daily living than patients diagnosed 20 years ago. According to recent studies, anxiety, depression and physical disability have been cut in half over the last two decades. Researchers believe a reduction in disease activity, due to early diagnosis and prompt treatment, is partly responsible for this positive change.
Therefore, when RA is diagnosed early and treated aggressively, it can have less of an impact on your life. That’s why it’s important to work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that works for you.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
Read our in-depth article on RA symptoms.
Rheumatoid arthritis usually starts in your smaller joints—your wrist, hands and fingers, for example. RA also generally has a symmetrical pattern, which means that if a joint in your right hand hurts, that same joint on your left hand will also hurt.
Symptoms can seem to come and go with RA because the disease does go into remission at times. According to the Arthritis Foundation, sudden increases in symptoms and illness are called flares and can last for days or months.
During flare-ups, people with RA may experience:
- swollen, tender joints
- joints that feel warm
- stiff joints, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity
- low-grade fever
- loss of appetite
As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, your joints may start to become noticeably deformed, and you may notice more significant trouble using your joints. For example, you may have trouble holding a pen or buttoning a shirt.
Symptoms of RA vary from patient to patient, so while these are all common RA symptoms, your experience may be slightly different.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes
We also have a more detailed article on rheumatoid arthritis causes.
Researchers in the medical community don’t know what precisely causes rheumatoid arthritis, but they do have some clues to the cause:
- The Immune System: RA is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the immune system turns against the body. While it normally protects the body from infection and sickness, in RA, the immune system starts to attack joint tissue, causing inflammation.
Everyone should have the rheumatoid factor in their blood, which is an antibody that’s a normal part of the immune system. Many patients with RA have a higher level of the rheumatoid factor, so researchers think that this has something to do with developing rheumatoid arthritis.
- Heredity: It’s possible that the genetic marker HLA-DR4 plays a role in the development of RA because researchers have found that many people with RA (but not everyone) has this marker.
- Gender: Women are more likely to develop RA than men.
- Infection/Bacteria/Viruses: It seems that something must “set off” the immune system to turn it against the body. However, researchers aren’t entirely sure what infections can set off RA.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be a debilitating condition as it causes inflammation in your joints. It can also affect other organs (because it’s a systemic disease), so it’s important to start treatment early—and to treat RA aggressively.