Condition Basics

What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition in which the body's own immune system attacks the joints. This causes swollen, stiff, and painful (inflamed) joints, especially in the hands and feet.

Over time, RA can damage and deform joints. It makes it hard to open jars, write, and do other daily tasks. Sometimes it can also cause bumps to form under the skin.

Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women than in men. It often starts between the ages of 40 and 60.

What causes it?

The cause of RA isn't fully understood. But it's an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's natural defense system attacks the joints. Genes play a role, but experts don't know exactly what that role is.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of RA often develop slowly over weeks or months. Fatigue and stiffness are usually early symptoms.

Joint symptoms include:

  • Pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints of the hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles, knees, or neck. The disease usually affects both sides of the body at the same time.
  • Morning stiffness. Joint stiffness may develop after long periods of sleeping or sitting. It usually lasts at least 1 hour and often up to several hours.
  • Bumps (nodules). Rheumatoid nodules ranging in size from a pea to a mothball form in nearly one-third of people who have RA. Nodules usually form over pressure points in the body such as the elbows, knuckles, spine, and lower leg bones.

Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause symptoms throughout the body (systemic). These include:

  • Fatigue.
  • A loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Mild fever.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose RA, your doctor looks at a combination of your symptoms and test results. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and look at your joints for signs of tenderness or swelling.

How is RA treated?

RA is most often treated with medicine. Some medicines help to control the symptoms. Other medicines, especially when used early, can help to prevent the disease from getting worse.

Many of the medicines used to treat rheumatoid arthritis have side effects. Have regular checkups. And talk with your doctor about any problems. This will help your doctor find a treatment that works for you.

Physical therapy and finding the best balance between rest and activity can also help your symptoms.

If your treatment doesn't help, surgery may be an option. The type of surgery you can have depends on which joints are causing problems. Sometimes surgery to replace a joint (such as a hip or knee) is an option. Other types of surgery can remove debris or inflamed tissue from a joint, or relieve pressure on nerves.