Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints. It causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. If one knee or hand has rheumatoid arthritis, usually the other does too. This disease often occurs in more than one joint and can affect any joint in the body. People with this disease may feel sick and tired, and they sometimes get fevers.
Some people have this disease for only a few months or a year or two. Then it goes away without causing damage. Other people have times when the symptoms get worse (flares), and times when they get better (remissions). Others have a severe form of the disease that can last for many years or a lifetime. This form of the disease can cause serious joint damage.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. In RA, the body attacks the lining of a joint just as it would if it were trying to protect you from injury or disease. For example, if your elderly parent had a splinter in their finger, the finger would become inflamed—painful, red, and swollen. RA leads to inflammation in the joints.
This inflammation causes pain, swelling, and stiffness that lasts for hours. This can often happen in many different joints at the same time. Your aging parent might not even be able to move the joint. People with RA often don't feel well. They may be tired or run a fever. People of any age can develop RA, and it is more common in women.
RA can attack almost any joint in the body, including the joints in the fingers, wrists, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, feet, and neck. If your elder has RA in a joint on one side of the body, the same joint on the other side of the body will probably have RA also. RA not only destroys joints. It can also attack organs such as the heart, muscles, blood vessels, nervous system, and eyes.
Who Gets Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Anyone can get this disease, though it occurs more often in women. Rheumatoid arthritis often starts in middle age and is most common in older people. But children and young adults can also get it.
Doctors don't know the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis. They know that with this arthritis, a person's immune system attacks his or her own body tissues. Researchers are learning many things about why and how this happens. Things that may cause rheumatoid arthritis are genes (passed from parent to child, environmental factors and hormones.
How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?
People can go to a family doctor or rheumatologist to be diagnosed. A rheumatologist is a doctor who helps people with problems in the joints, bones, and muscles. Rheumatoid arthritis can be hard to diagnose because:
- There is no single test for the disease
- The symptoms can be the same as other kinds of joint disease
- The full symptoms can take time to develop.
- To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, doctors use medical history, physical exam, x rays, and lab tests.
How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?
Doctors have many ways to treat this disease. The goals of treatment are to:
- Take away pain
- Reduce swelling
- Slow down or stop joint damage
- Help people feel better
- Help people stay active
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH), supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases.