Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the small joints in your hands and feet. 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.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. In addition to causing joint problems, rheumatoid arthritis sometimes can affect other organs of the body — such as the skin, eyes, lungs and blood vessels.
Although rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, it usually begins after age 40. The disorder is much more common in women than in men. Treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing joint damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause pain, swelling and deformity. As the tissue that lines your joints (synovial membrane) becomes inflamed and thickened, fluid builds up and joints erode and degrade. ...
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
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 knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
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.
When to see a doctor
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.
Osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, involves the wearing away of the cartilage that caps the bones in your joints. With rheumatoid arthritis, the synovial membrane that protects and ...
Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
Rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of developing:
Preparing for your appointment
While you might first discuss your symptoms with your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a rheumatologist — a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions — for further evaluation.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
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 will also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
Treatments and drugs
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Medications can reduce inflammation in your joints in order to relieve pain and prevent or slow joint damage. Occupational and physical therapy can teach you how to protect your joints. If your joints are severely damaged by rheumatoid arthritis, surgery may be necessary.
Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints. For instance, a kitchen knife equipped with a saw handle helps protect your finger and wrist joints. Tools such as buttonhooks can make it easier to get dressed. Catalogs and medical supply stores are good places to look for ideas.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection and pain. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
Large grip tools, such as a large grip knife, can make it easier to take care of everyday tasks if you have arthritis in your hands. Some tools will need to be purchased at a specialty store. Others ...
To protect your finger joints, avoid tightly pinching with your fingers. For example, use a buttonhook to help you grasp and fasten buttons on your clothes. Choose clothes with easy-to-close ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
You can take steps to care for your body if you have rheumatoid arthritis. These self-care measures, when used along with your rheumatoid arthritis medications, can help you manage your signs and symptoms:
Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:
Coping and support
The degree to which rheumatoid arthritis affects your daily activities depends in part on how well you cope with the disease. Talk to your doctor or nurse about strategies for coping. With time you'll find what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:
Last Updated: 2013-07-27
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