Rheumatoid Arthritis

This form of arthritis is characterized by painful inflammation that destroys joint tissue. Other parts of the body may also be affected.

This form of arthritis is characterized by painful inflammation that destroys joint tissue. Other parts of the body may also be affected.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of autoimmune disorder, which is a condition where the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. In the case of RA, the joints are a primary focus of that attack. When RA affects the joints it can cause joint inflammation and damage, which can interfere with everyday activities. In addition to the joints, RA can affect other parts of the body (i.e., the heart and lungs).

  • RA is very different from the much more common osteoarthritis.
  • The inflammation seen with RA can cause significant pain, joint deformity and disability.

The exact cause of RA is not known. However, risk for developing the condition is increased by:

  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • Sex (females have an increased risk)
  • Genetics (presence of certain genetic markers)
  • In people at increased risk, it is thought that certain triggers (such as an infection) can lead to the development of RA.

The symptoms of RA can start at any age. However, they often begin in middle age, and usually affect the same joints on both sides of the body. The term “symmetrical” is used to describe that involvement. The hands and feet are often affected before the wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, ankles and knees. Symptoms can vary, but frequently include:

  • Joint stiffness, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity
  • Joint pain, tenderness and swelling (a red color representing inflammation may be present)
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mild fever

As the disease progresses there may be:

  • A cycle of recurrences (called flare-ups) and remissions (when symptoms are not as active)
  • Joint deformities and disability
  • Rheumatoid nodules (lumps under the skin) around the elbows and hands
  • Chronic anemia (low red blood cell count), which can lead to fatigue or make it worse

It is important to diagnose RA early to prevent, delay and/or limit joint damage or other complications. Contact your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of RA. They will take a medical history, perform a physical exam and may order some tests. If you do have RA, they will probably refer you to a specialist (rheumatologist) for treatment.

  • To monitor the status of your RA, x-rays to check your joints may be recommended. They may also recommend blood tests to monitor the inflammation in your body.
  • There is no test that is completely accurate in diagnosing RA. However, some tests can be helpful in making the diagnosis.

Since RA is a chronic disease, treatment is usually needed for extended periods of time, perhaps your entire life. Treatment plans usually include:

  • Periods of rest and exercise
  • Medications to decrease inflammation and control joint damage
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery (if severe deformities are present and other treatments have not been effective)

Self-care measures include:

  • Stress reduction
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Application of heat or
  • Education on how to manage your RA symptoms, such as pain and fatigue

New drugs have been developed that can control the inflammation and joint destruction much better than those that were available in the past. However, these medications can have serious side effects that require close monitoring.

Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis or think you may be at risk for rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Bring a copy of your medical history (past illnesses, surgeries, and hospitalizations).
  • Bring a list of your medications (including over-the-counter).
  • Write down any questions, symptoms or concerns you want to talk about.
  • If your healthcare provider prescribes a medication for you, ask for a generic version. If your doctor thinks that a generic version is not right for you, ask for a medication on the lowest available tier of your Prescription Drug List (PDL).

Here are some questions to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What are my risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis? What dietary or lifestyle changes should I make?
  • Should I be enrolled in a physical therapy program?
  • Could my symptoms be related to another disease?
  • Are you recommending any tests? Will the test results change my treatment plan? If not, why do I need the test?
  • What are my treatment options? What are the goals of my treatment? Are there any alternatives? What are the risks?
  • What medication and lifestyle modifications would you recommend?
  • Will my medications interfere with other medications I'm taking?
  • When might I start to see improvement in my symptoms?
  • What are my follow-up plans? What symptoms should I report before my next appointment?

If you are a smoker, ask about smoking cessation programs in your area. Ask about other ways you might be able to stop smoking.

Source UHC.com

Also known as:

Rheumatoid Arthritis

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