Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues.
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.
The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
- Tender, warm, swollen joints
- Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
- Fatigue, fever and loss of appetite
Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.
As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
About 40 percent of the people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don't involve the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many nonjoint structures, including:
- Salivary glands
- Nerve tissue
- Bone marrow
- Blood vessels
Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.
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 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.
Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Your sex. Women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
- Age. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins in middle age.
- Family history. If a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease. Smoking also appears to be associated with greater disease severity.
- Environmental exposures. Although poorly understood, some exposures such as asbestos or silica may increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Emergency workers exposed to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center are at higher risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Obesity. People — especially women age 55 and younger — who are overweight or obese appear to be at a somewhat higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of developing:
- Osteoporosis. Rheumatoid arthritis itself, along with some medications used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your risk of osteoporosis — a condition that weakens your bones and makes them more prone to fracture.
- Rheumatoid nodules. These firm bumps of tissue most commonly form around pressure points, such as the elbows. However, these nodules can form anywhere in the body, including the lungs.
- Dry eyes and mouth. People who have rheumatoid arthritis are much more likely to experience Sjogren's syndrome, a disorder that decreases the amount of moisture in your eyes and mouth.
- Infections. The disease itself and many of the medications used to combat rheumatoid arthritis can impair the immune system, leading to increased infections.
- Abnormal body composition. The proportion of fat to lean mass is often higher in people who have rheumatoid arthritis, even in people who have a normal body mass index (BMI).
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. If rheumatoid arthritis affects your wrists, the inflammation can compress the nerve that serves most of your hand and fingers.
- Heart problems. Rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses your heart.
- Lung disease. People with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
- Lymphoma. Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymph system.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. There is no one blood test or physical finding to confirm the diagnosis.
During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, redness and warmth. He or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
People with rheumatoid arthritis often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, or sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP), which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
Your doctor may recommend X-rays to help track the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in your joints over time. MRI and ultrasound tests can help your doctor judge the severity of the disease in your body.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But clinical studies indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
The types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you've had rheumatoid arthritis.
- NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Side effects may include stomach irritation, heart problems and kidney damage.
- Steroids. Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Side effects may include thinning of bones, weight gain and diabetes. Doctors often prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve acute symptoms, with the goal of gradually tapering off the medication.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Common DMARDs include methotrexate (Trexall, Otrexup, others), leflunomide (Arava), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine).
Side effects vary but may include liver damage, bone marrow suppression and severe lung infections.
Biologic agents. Also known as biologic response modifiers, this newer class of DMARDs includes abatacept (Orencia), adalimumab (Humira), anakinra (Kineret), baricitinib (Olumiant), certolizumab (Cimzia), etanercept (Enbrel), golimumab (Simponi), infliximab (Remicade), rituximab (Rituxan), sarilumab (Kevzara), tocilizumab (Actemra) and tofacitinib (Xeljanz).
These drugs can target parts of the immune system that trigger inflammation that causes joint and tissue damage. These types of drugs also increase the risk of infections. In people with rheumatoid arthritis, higher doses of tofacitinib can increase the risk of blood clots in the lungs. Biologic DMARDs are usually most effective when paired with a nonbiologic DMARD, such as methotrexate.
Your doctor may send you to a physical or occupational therapist who can teach you exercises to help keep your joints flexible. The therapist may also suggest new ways to do daily tasks, which will be easier on your joints. For example, you may want to pick up an object using your forearms.
Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints. For instance, a kitchen knife equipped with a hand grip helps protect your finger and wrist joints. Certain tools, such as buttonhooks, can make it easier to get dressed. Catalogs and medical supply stores are good places to look for ideas.
If medications fail to prevent or slow joint damage, you and your doctor may consider surgery to repair damaged joints. Surgery may help restore your ability to use your joint. It can also reduce pain and improve function.
Rheumatoid arthritis surgery may involve one or more of the following procedures:
- Synovectomy. Surgery to remove the inflamed lining of the joint (synovium) can be performed on knees, elbows, wrists, fingers and hips.
- Tendon repair. Inflammation and joint damage may cause tendons around your joint to loosen or rupture. Your surgeon may be able to repair the tendons around your joint.
- Joint fusion. Surgically fusing a joint may be recommended to stabilize or realign a joint and for pain relief when a joint replacement isn't an option.
- Total joint replacement. During joint replacement surgery, your surgeon removes the damaged parts of your joint and inserts a prosthesis made of metal and plastic.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection and pain. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
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:
- Exercise regularly. Gentle exercise can help strengthen the muscles around your joints, and it can help fight fatigue you might feel. Check with your doctor before you start exercising. If you're just getting started, begin by taking a walk. Avoid exercising tender, injured or severely inflamed joints.
- Apply heat or cold. Heat can help ease your pain and relax tense, painful muscles. Cold may dull the sensation of pain. Cold also has a numbing effect and can reduce swelling.
- Relax. Find ways to cope with pain by reducing stress in your life. Techniques such as guided imagery, deep breathing and muscle relaxation can all be used to control pain.
Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Fish oil. Some preliminary studies have found that fish oil supplements may reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness. Side effects can include nausea, belching and a fishy taste in the mouth. Fish oil can interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Plant oils. The seeds of evening primrose, borage and black currant contain a type of fatty acid that may help with rheumatoid arthritis pain and morning stiffness. Side effects may include headache, diarrhea and gas. Some plant oils can cause liver damage or interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Tai chi. This movement therapy involves gentle exercises and stretches combined with deep breathing. Many people use tai chi to relieve stress in their lives. Small studies have found that tai chi may improve mood and quality of life in people with rheumatoid arthritis. When led by a knowledgeable instructor, tai chi is safe. But don't do any moves that cause pain.
The pain and disability associated with rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person's work and family life. Depression and anxiety are common, as are feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.
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 learn what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:
- Take control. With your doctor, make a plan for managing your arthritis. This will help you feel in charge of your disease.
- Know your limits. Rest when you're tired. Rheumatoid arthritis can make you prone to fatigue and muscle weakness. A rest or short nap that doesn't interfere with nighttime sleep may help.
- Connect with others. Keep your family aware of how you're feeling. They may be worried about you but might not feel comfortable asking about your pain. Find a family member or friend you can talk to when you're feeling especially overwhelmed. Also connect with other people who have rheumatoid arthritis — whether through a support group in your community or online.
- Take time for yourself. It's easy to get busy and not take time for yourself. Find time for what you like, whether it's time to write in a journal, go for a walk or listen to music. This can help reduce stress.
While you might first discuss your symptoms with your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (rheumatologist) for further evaluation.
What you can do
Write a list that includes:
- Detailed descriptions of your symptoms
- Information about medical problems you've had in the past
- Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
- All the medications and dietary supplements you currently take and have taken in the past for this problem
- Questions you want to ask the doctor
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Have your symptoms changed over time?
- Which joints are affected?
- Does any activity make your symptoms better or worse?
- Are your symptoms interfering with daily tasks?