What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Tamera Jackson by Tamera Jackson | Licensed since 2007
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Rheumatoid arthritis (also known as RA) is an inflammatory disease that can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints. In most cases, RA is chronic and can last for a long time, even an entire lifetime. However, advances in treatment have made it possible to slow or even stop the worsening of symptoms and joint damage.

Learn more about the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and how the disease affects people’s lives in this article.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease where the body’s joints become inflamed, or swollen and painful. A joint is a place where two or more bones come together to allow movement and absorb shock from movements like walking. Auto means self, and RA is an autoimmune disease because a person’s immune system, which normally helps protect a person from infection and disease, attacks its own joint tissues for unknown reasons. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA attacks the lining of the joints themselves, causing pain, swelling, and joint deformity. In some cases, rheumatoid arthritis can also damage the eyes, skin, lungs, and blood vessels.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.5 million Americans. The disease occurs much more frequently in women; about two to three times as many women as men have RA. It usually begins in middle age and occurs with greater frequency as a person becomes older, although it can develop at any age.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis can range from being mild to severe. Some people who have a mild or moderate form have periods of worsening symptoms, called flares, and other times when they feel better—periods called remissions. Others have a more severe form of RA where symptoms are active most of the time. According to the American College of Rheumatology, severe joint stiffness in the morning may be a clue that you have RA because few other arthritic diseases have this particular symptom. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may be different among people with the disease and may include the following (but are not limited to):

  • Warm, swollen joints that are tender to the touch
  • Pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of flexibility (due to joint inflammation) often affecting the wrist and finger joints closest to the hand
  • Joint inflammation sometimes affecting other joints, such as the neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and feet
  • Symmetrical pattern of the joints that are affected, meaning if one knee or hand is involved, the other is too
  • Fatigue, occasional fevers, and loss of energy
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Pain and stiffness that lasts for more than a half hour in the morning

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Scientists don’t know for sure what causes the body’s immune process to turn against its own joint tissue in rheumatoid arthritis.

Though we don’t have all the answers, scientific researchers think that rheumatoid arthritis develops because of an interaction of several factors (not just one), including:

  • Genetic (inherited) factors: More than one gene is involved in determining whether a person develops RA and how severe it is, though a person’s genetic makeup is not the only factor.
  • Environmental factors: Many scientists think that something in the environment could trigger the RA disease process in those who are genetically more susceptible to it.
  • Hormonal factors: Some scientists think that changes or deficiencies in hormones may help cause the disease in someone who’s already genetically susceptible and exposed to a triggering environmental agent.

Factors that may increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis include but are not limited to the following:

  • Gender: According to the NIAMS, rheumatoid arthritis occurs two to three times more often in women than men.
  • Age: According to the American College of Rheumatology, rheumatoid arthritis often begins between the 40s and 60s.
  • Family history: If a family member has RA, this can suggest that genetic factors are involved.
  • Smoking: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a history of smoking is associated with a modest to moderate (1.3 or 2.4 times) increased risk of RA.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

Many diseases and conditions may present with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, especially in the early stages. If your doctor suspects you may have RA, you may be referred to a rheumatologist, or a doctor who specializes in rheumatoid diseases. He or she may use a variety of the following tools to diagnose the disease and rule out other conditions:

  • Medical history
  • Physical examination
  • Laboratory tests

There is no single test for rheumatoid arthritis and symptoms can be different in each person, making it difficult to diagnose. Also, symptoms develop over time and may be hard to diagnose in the early stages, especially if you’ve had rheumatoid arthritis symptoms for fewer than six months.

What if you have rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis affects people in different ways, and its effects are not just physical. People with RA may experience depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and low self-esteem.  Fortunately, current rheumatoid arthritis treatments and self-management techniques may help you live an active and productive life. Scientists are making progress in understanding the disease, and new research may lead to an improved quality of life for those with rheumatoid arthritis.

If you have questions about rheumatoid arthritis and your coverage under the Medicare program, I’m available to talk with you. To get information via email or to schedule a phone call at a time convenient for you, click one of the links below. You can see some of the plan options in your area by clicking the Compare Plans or Find Plans buttons.

For more information, see:

“Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis,” National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, last updated February 2016, http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/rheumatic_disease/

“Rheumatoid Arthritis,” American College of Rheumatology, last updated August 2013, http://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Rheumatoid-Arthritis

“Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last updated October 28, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid.htm

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