Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that most typically affects the small joints in your hands and feet. Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. In addition to causing joint problems, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect your whole body with fevers and fatigue.
Rheumatoid arthritis is two to three times more common in women than in men and generally occurs between the ages of 40 and 60. While there's no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatment options have expanded greatly in the past few decades.
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause pain, swelling and deformity. As the tissue that lines your joints (synovial membrane) becomes inflamed and thickened, fluid builds up and joints erode and degrade. ...
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
Smaller joints affected first
Symptoms may come and go
When to see a doctor
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium, the lining of the membranes that surround your joints. The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually invade and destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.
Doctors don't know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don't actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.
Osteoarthritis vs rheumatoid arthritis
The two most common types of arthritis affect joints in very different ways. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage on the ends of the bones wears away — allowing bone to grate on bone. Rheumatoid ...
Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
Rheumatoid arthritis causes joint damage that can be both debilitating and disfiguring. Damage to your joints may make it difficult or impossible to go about your daily activities. You may find at first that tasks take more energy to accomplish. With time you may find you are no longer able to do them at all. Newer treatments may stop joint damage or prevent it so that you can continue the activities you enjoy.
Preparing for your appointment
While you might first discuss your symptoms with your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a rheumatologist — a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions — for further evaluation.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
In addition to the physical exam, your doctor might order imaging and laboratory tests to help determine the cause of your signs and symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because its early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. And no one test or physical finding confirms the diagnosis.
Treatments and drugs
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Medications can reduce inflammation in your joints in order to relieve pain and prevent or slow joint damage. Occupational and physical therapy can teach you how to protect your joints. If your joints are severely damaged by rheumatoid arthritis, surgery may be necessary.
Assistive devices can make it easier to go about your day without stressing your painful joints. For instance, using specially designed gripping and grabbing tools may make it easier to work in the kitchen if you have pain in your fingers. Try a cane to help you get around. Your doctor or occupational therapist may have ideas about what sorts of assistive devices may be helpful to you. Catalogs and medical supply stores also may be places to look for ideas.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection and pain. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
Assistive devices for gripping
Assistive devices may take stress off your joints and make it easier to go about daily tasks. If your hands are sore, assistive devices are available to help you open jars. ...
Assistive device for grabbing
Assistive devices, such as a reaching tool, may take stress and strain off your joints. ...
Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the joints in the fingers, as shown in the hand on the left side of the image. Years of joint damage can leave hands deformed and unusable. The hand on the right ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
You can take steps to care for your body if you have rheumatoid arthritis. These self-care measures, when used along with your rheumatoid arthritis medications, can help you manage your signs and symptoms.
Avoid exercising tender, injured or severely inflamed joints. If you feel new joint pain, stop. New pain that lasts more than two hours after you exercise probably means you've overdone it. If pain persists for more than a few days, call your doctor.
Apply heat or cold
Cold may dull the sensation of pain. Cold also has a numbing effect and decreases muscle spasms. Don't use cold treatments if you have poor circulation or numbness. Techniques may include using cold packs, soaking the affected joints in cold water and ice massage.
Many people with rheumatoid arthritis find relief by soaking their aching joints in warm water for four minutes and then in cool water for a minute. Repeat the cycle for a half-hour, ending with a warm-water soak.
Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:
Coping and support
The degree to which rheumatoid arthritis affects your daily activities depends in part on how well you cope with the disease. Talk to your doctor or nurse about strategies for coping. With time you'll find what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:
Last Updated: 2009-11-03
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