Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms and Causes

Learn more about the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease

According to the CDC, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake, causing inflammation and painful swelling. Rheumatoid arthritis usually attacks the joints (hands, wrists, and knees), often with many joints impacted at once. In joints affected by the disease, the lining of the joint can become inflamed, causing damage to the joint tissue. This tissue damage can lead to chronic pain, unsteadiness, and/or deformity.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 1.3 million Americans, about 75% of which are women. In fact, 1% to 3% of women may develop rheumatoid arthritis in their lifetime. The disease most often begins between the ages of 30 and 50, but can start at any age, according to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR).

People who receive early treatment intervention for RA have a better chance of improving their lives sooner, and are more likely to lead an active life, according to the ACR. These patients are also less likely to require joint replacement surgery due to excessive joint damage. Patients are urged to increase muscle strength through routine, low-impact exercises (walking, etc.) to allow lower pressure to be applied to joints and improve overall health. Above all else, seek out a rheumatologist, one who specializes in arthritis and autoimmune diseases, who can help develop a treatment plan suited to your individual needs and therapy goals. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Many RA patients experience periods of flare-ups as well as remission. Rheumatoid arthritis flares are periods when RA symptoms get worse, while remission is a period of time when RA symptoms get better, according to the CDC. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, may include:

  • tender, warm, swollen joints
  • swollen joints on both sides of the body, such as in both your right and left wrist
  • swollen joints often in the wrist and finger joints closest to the hand
  • swollen joints sometimes in other joints, including the neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and feet
  • feeling tired and having low energy
  • fevers
  • pain and stiffness lasting for more than 30 minutes in the morning or after a long rest
  • symptoms that last for many years.

The Arthritis Foundation states that ongoing high levels of inflammation can cause other problems throughout the body as well. Some of the ways that symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can affect organs and other body systems include:

  • eyes - dryness, pain, redness, sensitivity to light and impaired vision
  • mouth - dryness and gum irritation or infection
  • skin - rheumatoid nodules (small lumps under the skin over bony areas)
  • lungs - inflammation and scarring that can lead to shortness of breath
  • blood - anemia, a lower than normal number of red blood cells
  • blood vessels - inflammation of blood vessels that can lead to damage in the nerves, skin and other organs.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes

While the specific cause of RA remains unknown, there are many factors that come into play with increasing the risk and likelihood of developing the condition. Since RA is an autoimmune disorder that targets one’s own body tissues (that is, healthy tissue that the immune system mistakenly sends inflammation to, according to the CDC), researchers are focusing on this area to learn more about why these mistakes occur.

While most people have the rheumatoid factor (RF)—a normal antibody in the immune system—in their blood, many patients with RA have higher levels of these factors, which may play a part in further developing RA.

Some of the early signs that may put you at risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Certain Genes: Rheumatoid arthritis could be hereditary. According to the Arthritis Foundation, researchers have shown that people with a specific genetic marker called the “HLA shared epitope,” which controls immune response, are five times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those without the marker.
  • Other genes associated with RA include: STAT4, a gene that plays important roles in the regulation and activation of the immune system; TRAF1 and C5, two genes relevant to chronic inflammation; and PTPN22, a gene associated with both the development and progression of rheumatoid arthritis. Despite the risk, not all people with these genetic markers automatically develop RA.
  • Gender: According to the Arthritis Foundation, since female patients are more likely to get RA, some researchers believe that female hormones play a part in the development of the disease.
  • Infections, bacteria, and/or viruses: Getting sick can act as a “trigger” to activating the genes previously mentioned, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. This causes the immune system to act inappropriately and produce substances that attack the joint instead of protecting it.
  • Obesity, stress & environment, as well as the body’s response to stressful events, such as physical or emotional trauma, could also play a part in the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Research has also indicated that environmental factors such as exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, insecticides and occupational exposures to mineral oil and silica may play a role in one’s risk for rheumatoid arthritis.


A chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just the joints, rheumatoid arthritis, in some patients, can damage a wide variety of body systems. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA affects the lining of joints, causing swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity. Getting ahead of the disease early and treating the condition as soon as possible is key to living a pain-free life.

-Additional reporting by Steven Aliano

Updated on: 10/03/19
Continue Reading:
A Closer Look at Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms