Rheumatoid arthritis

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 12, 2016
StartDiseasesRheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that can affect many different joints within the body, and the inflammation that develops can create a wide range of symptoms and complications.


Definition & Facts

Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of autoimmune disease that causes a substantial amount of inflammation in many joints throughout the body. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system wrongly interprets body tissue as a foreign substance that should be attacked.

This inflammation is chronic, which means that there is no outright cure for the disease nor does it disappear on its own. However, symptoms may not be felt for lengthy periods of time. The pain experienced can flare up when least expected, so it's difficult to prevent the pain.

Unlike other types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis specifically attacks the lining of joints. Eventually, the inflammation can cause the joints to become deformed.

Symptoms & Complaints

The most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis revolve around joint pain, commonly felt in certain areas of the body like the hand, knees and feet. Affected joints will typically appear red at the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. These joints may also be warm to the touch. Tender and swollen joints are also common issues with rheumatoid arthritis.

During flare ups, fatigue and a general lack of energy may be present until the flare up is over. In addition, a fever will often accompany a flare up.

The severity of rheumatoid arthritis is not constant, as flares of the disease can differ wildly in their intensity while rheumatoid arthritis remission may last for many months or just a few weeks until the next flare up. When waking up, stiffness may present itself in the affected joints and bones for a few hours, even when a flare up is not occurring.

One of the more severe issues of rheumatoid arthritis that can occur at any time during the disease is that of the affected joints becoming deformed. These joints can point in different angles and appear misshapen.


The exact causes of rheumatoid arthritis are relatively unknown, though there are several risk factors that may contribute to the onset of the disease. It is believed that a person has a higher chance of having the disease if a family member has had it, as specific genes can increase the likelihood of rheumatoid arthritis.

In general, women are much more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis at some point in their lives. While the disease can take root and cause symptoms at practically any age, it typically occurs during the ages of 40-60.

Some of the main environmental factors that could raise risk levels include smoking, periodontal disease, diet, and stress.

It is suspected that certain viruses, fungi and bacteria could be the cause for this condition, but that has yet to be proven.

Diagnosis & Tests

Usually during a doctor visit, a physical exam will be administered during which certain joints around the body will be checked for common symptoms such as warmth, swelling, or redness. Muscle strength will also be thoroughly examined.

There are several blood tests that may aid in diagnosis. A blood test will be provided to identify if erythrocyte sedimentation rate is high, as this points towards inflammation. X-rays can also be administered to determine how much the disease has progressed.

Treatment & Therapy

Though there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are a large variety of treatment and therapy options to choose from. Certain medications assist in reducing inflammation, which will help relieve pain and slow down the rate at which the joints deteriorate. These medications include everything from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID's) like naproxen and ibuprofen to steroids like prednisone. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs or (DMARDs) can also help reduce inflammation. These medications include methotrexate and sulfasalazine.

Physical therapy can also be used as a means of keeping the joints flexible, which should relieve pain. Exercises will be taught that minimize stress on the affected joints. If joint damage occurs, surgery should be considered.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

If any symptoms are noticed, seek treatment immediately, as aggressive treatment early on may help dramatically in delaying any serious side effects of the disease, such as joint damage. Gentle exercises like stretching can reduce pain and reduce joint damage. This may help to extend the time between flare ups. Quitting smoking will help to drastically lower the chances of getting the disease as well as to reduce the severity of symptoms.