Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a form of inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disease. For reasons no one fully understands, in rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system – which is designed to protect our health by attacking foreign cells such as viruses and bacteria – instead attacks the body’s own tissues, specifically the synovium, a thin membrane that lines the joints. As a result of the attack, fluid builds up in the joints, causing pain in the joints and inflammation that’s systemic – meaning it can occur throughout the body.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, meaning it can’t be cured. Most people with RA experience intermittent bouts of intense disease activity, called flares. In some people the disease is continuously active and gets worse over time. Others enjoy long periods of remission – no disease activity or symptoms at all. Evidence shows that early diagnosis and aggressive treatment to put the disease into remission is the best means of avoiding joint destruction, organ damage and disability.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms and course of rheumatoid arthritis vary from person to person and can change on a daily basis. Your joints may feel warm to the touch and you might notice a decreased range of motion, as well as inflammation, swelling and pain in the areas around the affected joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical, meaning if a joint on one side of the body is affected, the corresponding joint on the other side of the body is also involved. Because the inflammation is systemic, you’re likely to feel fatigued and you may become anemic, lose your appetite and run a low-grade fever.
Rheumatoid arthritis may affect many different joints and cause damage to cartilage, tendons and ligaments – it can even wear away the ends of your bones. One common outcome is joint deformity and disability. Some people with RA develop rheumatoid nodules; lumps of tissue that form under the skin, often over bony areas exposed to pressure. These occur most often around the elbows but can be found elsewhere on the body, such as on the fingers, over the spine or on the heels. Over time, the inflammation that characterizes RA can also affect numerous organs and internal systems.
Learn more: Who Gets Rheumatoid Arthritis – and Why?
Think you might have RA? When is it time to call the doctor?