(RA; Arthritis, Rheumatoid)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints.
RA is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that trigger an abnormal immune response. Possible causes include:
- Genes—People with rheumatoid arthritis may have a specific genetic defect that increases their risk for developing this condition
- Defects in the immune system may cause the immune cells to fail to recognize the body’s own tissues
- Infection with specific viruses or bacteria that kick off an abnormal immune response
- Chemical or hormonal imbalances in the body
RA is more common in women, and in people between the ages of 30 and 60. Other factors that may increase your chance of developing RA include:
- Family members with RA
- Excess weight or obesity
- Heavy or long-term smoking
RA causes many symptoms.
Joint symptoms include:
- Increased pain and stiffness in the morning and after inactivity
- Morning stiffness and pain that lasts more than 30 minutes
- Red, swollen, warm joints
- Deformed, misshapen joints
RA may also cause:
- Intense fatigue, decreased energy
- Muscle aches
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Fever and sweats
- Small lumps or nodules under the skin
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. To be diagnosed with RA, you must have at least 1 swollen or tender joint or a history of a swollen joint. How many joints, and which joints are involved, will help aid your doctor in the diagnosis.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
There is no cure for RA. The goals of treatment are to:
- Relieve pain
- Reduce inflammation
- Slow down joint damage
- Improve functional ability
There are a variety of medications to treat the pain and inflammation of RA. In some cases, medications may be used in combination. These may include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Cyclooxgenase-2 or COX-2 inhibitors
- Nonbiologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- Biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
Medication may be taken by mouth, applied to the skin, or injected into the joint.
Rest and Exercise
Rest reduces active joint inflammation and pain and fights fatigue. Exercise is important for maintaining muscle strength and flexibility. It also preserves joint mobility.
These steps may help relieve stiffness, weakness, and reduce inflammation:
- Maintain a balance between rest and exercise
- Attempt mild strength training
- Participate in aerobic exercise, such as, walking, swimming, or dancing
- Avoid heavy-impact exercise
- Control weight
- Participate in a physical therapy program
Splints applied to painful joints may reduce pain. Devices that help with daily activities can also reduce stress on joints. Devices include:
- Zipper extenders
- Long-handled shoehorns
- Specially designed kitchen tools
Stress reduction can ease the difficulties of living with a chronic, painful disease. Participating in an exercise program or joining a support group are 2 strategies you can use to reduce stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, and meditation may also offer benefits in reducing your pain and improving your ability to cope with RA.
There are no current guidelines to prevent RA.
American College of Rheumatology
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Rheumatology Association
Rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Foundation website. Available at: http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis. Accessed June 29, 2015.
Rheumatoid arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Rheumatic_Disease/default.asp. Updated August 2014. Accessed June 29, 2015.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 7, 2015. Accessed June 29, 2015.
Who gets RA? Arthritis Foundation website. Available at: http://www.arthritistoday.org/about-arthritis/types-of-arthritis/rheumatoid-arthritis/who-gets-ra-and-why/who-gets-ra/how-do-you-get-ra.php. Accessed June 29, 2015.
Tanaka E, Saito A, et al. Impact of shoulder, elbow, and knee joint involvement on assessment of rheumatoid arthritis using the American College of Rheumatology Core Data Set. Arthritis Rheum. 2005;53:864-871.
Verstappen SM, Bijlsma JW, et al. Overview of work disability in rheumatoid arthritis patients as observed in cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys. Arthritis Rheum. 2004;51:488-497.
4/16/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Zautra AJ, Davis MC, Reich JW, et al. Comparison of cognitive behavioral and mindfulness meditation interventions on adaptation to rheumatoid arthritis for patients with and without history of recurrent depression. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2008;76:408-421.
1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Anis A, Zhang W, Emery P, et al. The effect of etanercept on work productivity in patients with early active rheumatoid arthritis: results from the COMET study. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2009;48:1283-1289.
1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Aletaha D, Neogi T, Silman AJ, Funovits J, et al. 2010 rheumatoid arthritis classification criteria: an American College of Rheumatology/European League Against Rheumatism collaborative initiative. Ann Rheum Dis. 2010;69(9):1580-1588.
4/24/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Wise JN, Weissman BN, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria for chronic foot pain. Available at: http://www.acr.org/~/media/ACR/Documents/AppCriteria/Diagnostic/ChronicFootPain.pdf. Updated 2013. Accessed June 29, 2015.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.