Diseases & Conditions
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory, autoimmune disease causing joint inflammation. It affects the lining of the joints in the hands and feet causing swelling, pain, functional impairment and muscle wasting and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.1
Among the inflammatory rheumatic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type affecting about 1% of the world population. With people living longer, the prevalence of this disease is expected to increase by ∼22% between 2005 and 2025.2
At early stages, patients with rheumatoid arthritis may have general complaints such as fatigue, weakness, and tingling in the hands and feet. As the disease progresses, symptoms progress to the joints of the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows and toes.3 In this disease, joints on the both side of the body are affected, such as both hands, both wrists, and both knees. This symmetry helps to set it apart from other types of arthritis.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease meaning that that the body's natural defence system attacks the joints. Despite intensive research, no one knows for sure why the immune system goes awry and the precise cause of rheumatoid arthritis remains unknown.
However, researchers believe that some genes that affect the immune system could make some people more prone to getting rheumatoid arthritis. It is also suspected that the immune system of these individuals susceptible to getting the disease might be triggered by certain infections or factors in the environment. These environmental factors include smoking tobacco, exposure to silica mineral and chronic periodontal disease, which all increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.4 However, the exact cause or causes of the disease are still unknown.5
What are the risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis?
The following risk factors may raise the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis:6
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
The following symptoms are warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis:8
The typical case of rheumatoid arthritis begins with the slow development of signs and symptoms over weeks to months. Often the patient first notices stiffness in one or more joints, usually accompanied by pain on movement and by tenderness in the joint. The number of joints involved is highly variable, but the process usually involves five or more joints. The joints most often involved are the joints of the hands, the wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles. The disease usually affects both sides of the body at the same time. In rare but severe cases, it may affect the eyes, lungs, heart, nerves, or blood vessels.8
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
Rheumatoid arthritis can be hard to diagnose in its early stages because of the subtle symptoms such as painful joints and slight morning stiffness. There is no singular test for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis and the diagnosis is based on the clinical presentation. Ultimately, rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed based on a combination of the following criteria:9
How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?
The goals of rheumatoid arthritis treatment are to reduce inflammation and pain, slow the disease process, improve function, and maintain quality of life. Early diagnosis and management are very important to alter the course of this progressive disease. Getting treatment early may control the condition or keep it from getting worse. Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis may involve medications, therapy, surgery, and lifestyle changes.10
Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is life-long. Many of the medicines used to treat rheumatoid arthritis have side effects. Therefore, it is important to have regular check-ups and talk with the doctor about any problems. This will help the doctor find a treatment that works best for the individual.