Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs.
RA; Arthritis - rheumatoid
The cause of RA is unknown. It is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
RA can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age. Women get RA more often than men.
Infection, genes, and hormone changes may be linked to the disease.
RA usually affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are the most commonly affected.
The disease often begins slowly, usually with only minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.
Joint symptoms may include:
Other symptoms include:
Exams and Tests
There is no test that can determine for sure whether you have RA. Most patients with RA will have some abnormal test results, although for some patients, all tests will be normal.
Two lab tests that often help in the diagnosis are:
Other tests that may be done include:
RA usually requires lifelong treatment, including medications, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA can delay joint destruction.
Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These drugs are the first drugs usually tried in patients with RA. They are prescribed in addition to rest, strengthening exercises, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Anti-inflammatory medications: These include aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naprosen.
Antimalarial medications: This group of medicines includes hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), and is usually used along with methotrexate. It may be weeks or months before you see any benefit from these medications.
Corticosteroids: These medications work very well to reduce joint swelling and inflammation. Because of long-term side effects, corticosteroids should be taken only for a short time and in low doses when possible.
Biologic drugs are designed to affect parts of the immune system that play a role in the disease process of rheumatoid arthritis.
They may be given when other medicines for rheumatoid arthritis have not worked. At times, your doctor will start biologic drugs sooner, along with other rheumatoid arthritis drugs.
Most of them are given either under the skin (subcutaneously) or into a vein (intravenously). There are different types of biologic agents:
Biologic agents can be very helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. However, people taking these drugs must be watched very closely because of serious risk factors:
Occasionally, surgery is needed to correct severely damaged joints. Surgery may include:
Range-of-motion exercises and exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist can delay the loss of joint function and help keep muscles strong.
Sometimes therapists will use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and improve joint movement.
Joint protection techniques, heat and cold treatments, and splints or orthotic devices to support and align joints may be very helpful.
Frequent rest periods between activities, as well as 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night, are recommended.
Some people with RA may have intolerance or allergies to certain foods. A balanced nutritious diet is recommended. It may be helpful to eating foods rich in fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids).
How well a person does depend on the severity of symptoms.
People with rheumatoid factor, the anti-CCP antibody, or subcutaneous nodules seem to have a more severe form of the disease. People who develop RA at younger ages also seem to get worse more quickly.
Without proper treatment, permanent joint damage may occur. However, early treatment with many of the newer medicines have decreased joint pain and damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect nearly every part of the body. Complications may include:
The treatments for RA can also cause serious side effects. Talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of treatment and what to do if they occur.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is no known prevention. Proper early treatment can help prevent further joint damage.
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Harris ED Jr, Firestein GS. Clinical features of rheumatoid arthritis. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Harris ED Jr, et al., eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 66.
McBeth J, Prescott G, Scotland G, Lovell K, Keeley P, Hannaford P, et al. Cognitive behavior therapy, exercise, or both for treating chronic widespread pain.Arch Intern Med. 2011 Nov 14.
Review Date: 2/2/2012
Reviewed By: Ariel D. Teitel, MD, MBA, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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