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Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

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The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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Arthritis is a group of diseases that makes your joints hurt, swell up, and turn red. There are many different types of arthritis.

What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

RA is a type of arthritis in which your body's immune system attacks your joints.

  • RA is more common in women and usually starts in people between 35 and 50 years old, but it can start at any age

  • It can affect any joint but is particularly common in your hands and feet

  • Joints are swollen, painful, and stiff in the morning and often become deformed after many years

  • Sometimes RA affects other parts of your body, including your heart, lungs, eyes, and blood vessels

  • Doctors can tell if you have RA based on your symptoms, x-rays, and blood tests

  • Treatments can include medicines, exercise, and sometimes surgery

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

RA is an autoimmune disease. The immune system is part of your body's defense system, which helps protect you from illness and infection. In an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks parts of your own body by mistake—in RA, your immune system attacks your joints and sometimes other parts of your body. Doctors don't know exactly what causes your immune system to attack your joints.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Symptoms usually start gradually.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Tender, warm, red, and swollen joints (inflammation), usually the same joints on both sides of your body (like both wrists or both knees)

  • Stiffness in the affected joints for an hour or so after you get up in the morning

Along with the joint pain, you may feel generally sick with symptoms like:

  • Mild fever

  • Feeling tired and run down

  • No appetite and losing weight

After awhile, if the joint problems get worse, you may:

  • Be unable to bend or open joints all the way

  • Have permanently deformed joints, especially in your hands and fingers

When the Fingers Are Abnormally Bent

When the Fingers Are Abnormally Bent

You might also have problems that don't involve your joints. For example, you may have:

  • Red, irritated eyes

  • Heart or lung problems causing chest pain or trouble breathing

  • Hard skin lumps on your arms or legs

Most people with RA develop some disabilities but can still lead normal lives. Some people become more disabled, like those with severe deformities of their hands.

How can my doctor tell if I have rheumatoid arthritis?

Your doctor can tell if you have RA from:

  • Your symptoms

  • Blood tests

  • Testing joint fluid

How do doctors treat rheumatoid arthritis?

Doctors treat RA with medicines that can:

  • Bring down swelling and help with symptoms

  • Slow the progress of RA and prevent joints from becoming deformed

  • Weaken the immune system to lessen symptoms

Doctors may suggest you:

  • Get regular rest

  • Eat a diet rich in fish and plant oils but low in red meat

  • Exercise (talk with your doctor about what type is best for you)

  • Don't smoke

Doctors may also suggest:

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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