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What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune systemCLOSE Immune system: the body’s natural defense mechanism that responds to infection, injury, and diseases. It can also help heal damaged tissues. attacks joint tissue, causing inflammation of the joint lining. What does that mean for you? Joint pain, stiffness, and sometimes even loss of normal movement. Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis of RA.

RA Symptoms

Although RA is a chronic—or persisting—disease, symptoms may come and go unpredictably. That’s because RA symptoms come in flares where there may be periods of increased disease activity and fade or disappear in periods of remissionCLOSE Remission: periods of decreased disease activity. . During a flare, you may notice some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Painful, swollen, warm joints
  • Pain and stiffness lasting for more than 30 minutes in the morning or after a long rest
  • Inflammation in hands (wrist and finger joints), neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, or feet
  • Symmetrical pattern of inflammation, meaning both sides of the body are impacted at once
  • Fatigue, occasional fever, and a general feeling of discomfort

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, it’s important to talk with your doctor about whether or not you could be suffering from RA.

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What Causes RA?

Mom and daughter talking

Genetic Factors

Certain genesCLOSE Genes: genetic material that is passed on to you from your parents that determines your traits. play a role in the immune system—for some people, genetic factors may be involved in determining whether they will develop RA.

Scientist looking into microscope

Environmental Factors

RA can be triggered by infection in people who have inherited a genetic tendency for the disease. It’s important to remember, however, that RA is not contagious.

What Happens If RA Is Left Untreated?

If left untreated, RA can worsen and destroy joints. More specifically, untreated RA may lead to:

1

Damaged or weakened tendonsCLOSE Tendons: tissue that connects muscle to bone and allows movement of a structure. that can tear apart

2

Swelling that can severely damage or destroy ligamentsCLOSE Ligaments: tissue that connects bone to bone—holding structures together and providing stability., joint cartilageCLOSE Joint cartilage: tissue that covers the ends of the bones, providing cushion for a joint. , and bone

3

Deformity caused by bone erosionCLOSE Bone erosion: bone tissue breaks down over time due to an imbalance in the immune system.

How Is RA Diagnosed?

There are several tests and tools your doctor may use to diagnose RA. First, he or she may ask questions about your medical history and examine the joints that are bothering you. Next, your doctor may perform tests to confirm a diagnosis, including, but not limited to:

Blood samples

Blood Tests

A rheumatoid factor test looks for an antibodyCLOSE Antibody: a protein—produced by the immune system when it detects harmful substances like bacteria—that fights off infection. called a rheumatoid factor. About 80% of people with RA eventually have this antibody, although it’s possible to have the rheumatoid factor in your blood and not have RA.

Another test measures your erythrocyte sedimentation rate. People with RA tend to have abnormally high sedimentation rates.

Doctor looking at a patient's x-ray

X-rays

X-rays are used to help determine the extent of damage in the joints that are affected by RA. Plus, a sequence of X-rays taken over time can help to show the progression of the disease.


When it comes to treating RA, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important because it can help slow disease progression and help prevent joint damage. So if you think you could be suffering from RA, be sure to talk with your doctor about your symptoms.