Rheumatoid Arthritis

(RA; Arthritis, Rheumatoid)

by Editorial Staff and Contributors

En Español (Spanish Version)More InDepth Information on This Condition

* Definition

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. RA usually affects the same joint on both sides of the body. It occurs mostly in the:

  • Fingers
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders
  • Jaw
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Toes

Rheumatoid Arthritis

rheumatoid arthritis
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

* Causes

RA is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that trigger an abnormal immune response. Possible causes:

  • Genetic factors—Certain genes that play a role in the immune system are associated with RA development.
  • Defects in the immune system can cause ongoing inflammation.
  • Environmental factors—Certain infectious agents, such as some viruses or bacteria, may increase susceptibility to RA.
  • Other factors—Some evidence suggests that hormonal factors may promote RA development in combination with genetic factors and environmental exposure.

* Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing RA. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Family members with RA
  • Sex: female
  • Ethnic background: Pima Indians
  • Heavy or long-term smoking

* Symptoms

When RA begins, symptoms may include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness that is:
    • Symmetrical
    • Most prominent in the morning
    • Lasts for at least half an hour
  • Red, warm, or swollen joints
  • Joint deformity
  • Mild fever, tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Small lumps or nodules under the skin

As RA progresses, it may cause complications with the:

  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Eyes
  • Skin
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Blood
  • Nervous system
  • Blood vessels

It is also linked to early cardiovascular disease and death.

* Diagnosis

There is no single test for RA. The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. She will examine your joints, skin, reflexes, and muscle strength.


  • Rheumatoid factor (RF) level in the blood
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) of the blood—to measure inflammation in the body
  • C-reactive protein (CRP) —an indicator of active inflammation in the blood
  • White blood cell count
  • X-rays of affected joints (especially dual energy x-ray absorptiometry )—a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones

* Treatment

There is no cure for RA. The goals of treatment are to:

  • Relieve pain
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Slow down joint damage
  • Improve functional ability



Low-dose corticosteroids (eg, prednisone ) are often used first. They may be tapered when other drugs start working. Avoid long-term steroid use. Corticosteroid injections to inflamed joints may also be used.

Rest and Exercise

Rest reduces active joint inflammation and pain and fights fatigue. Exercise is important for maintaining muscle strength and flexibility. It also preserves joint mobility.

Joint Care

Splints applied to painful joints may reduce pain and swelling. Devices that help with daily activities can also reduce stress on joints. Devices include:

  • Zipper extenders
  • Long-handled shoehorns
  • Specially designed kitchen tools

Stress Reduction

Stress reduction can ease the difficulties of living with a chronic, painful disease. Exercise programs, support groups , and open communication with doctors can reduce stress.


Joint replacement and tendon reconstruction help relieve severe joint damage.

Lifestyle Measures

These may relieve stiffness and weakness and reduce inflammation:

  • Maintain a balance between rest and exercise.
  • Attempt mild strength training.
  • Participate in aerobic exercise (eg, walking, swimming, dancing).
  • Avoid heavy impact exercise.
  • If you smoke, quit .
  • Control weight.
  • Participate in a physical therapy program.

* Prevention

There are no guidelines for preventing RA.

Last reviewed February 2009 by Jill D. Landis, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Copyright © 2009 EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.

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