Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic (long-standing) joint disease that damages the joints of the body. The damage is caused by inflammation of the joint lining tissue. Inflammation is normally a response by the body's immune system to "assaults" such as infections, wounds, and foreign objects. In rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammation is misdirected to attack the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is often referred to as RA.
- The inflammation in the joints causes pain, stiffness, and swelling, as well as many other symptoms.
- The inflammation often affects other organs and systems of the body.
- If the inflammation is not slowed or stopped, it can permanently damage the affected joints and other tissues.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known. Many factors are involved in the abnormal activity of the immune system that characterizes rheumatoid arthritis. These factors include genetics (heredity), hormones (explaining why the disease is more common in women than men), and possibly infection by a bacterium or virus
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
Although rheumatoid arthritis can have many different symptoms, joints are always affected. Rheumatoid arthritis almost always affects the joints of the hands (such as the knuckle joints), wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and/or feet. The larger joints, such as the shoulders, hips, and jaw may be affected. The vertebrae of the neck are sometimes involved in people who have had the disease for many years. Usually at least two or three different joints are involved on both sides of the body, often in a symmetrical (mirror image) pattern. The usual joint symptoms include the following:
These symptoms may keep you from being able to carry out your normal activities. General symptoms include the following:
- Stiffness: The joint does not move as well as it once did. Its range of motion (the extent to which the appendage of the joint, such as the arm, leg, or finger, can move in different directions) may be reduced. Typically, stiffness is most noticeable in the morning and improves later in the day.
- Inflammation: Redness, tenderness, and warmth are the hallmarks of inflammation.
- Swelling: The area around the affected joint is swollen and puffy.
- Nodules: These are hard bumps that appear on or near the joint. They often are found near the elbows. They are most noticeable on the part of the joint that juts out when the joint is flexed.
- Pain: Pain in rheumatoid arthritis has several sources. Pain can come from inflammation or swelling of the joint and surrounding tissues or from working the joint too hard. The intensity of the pain varies by the individual.