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Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and damage to your joints. RA causes your body's immune system to attack the synovial membrane (lining) in your joints. RA can also affect other organs, such as your eyes, heart, or lungs. It may also increase your risk of osteoporosis (weakened bones).

What increases my risk for RA?

  • You are a woman.

  • You have a family member with RA.

  • You are between 30 and 60 years old.

  • You smoke cigarettes.

What are the signs and symptoms of RA?

  • Joint pain and stiffness that lasts longer than 1 hour

  • Swollen joints in the same joint on both sides of your body

  • Loss of joint movement

  • Firm, round nodules (growths) on your joints

  • Fatigue or muscle weakness

  • Loss of appetite or weight loss

How is RA diagnosed?

  • Blood tests: Your blood is tested for signs of infection or inflammation.

  • Joint x-ray: This is a picture of the bones and tissues in your joints. You may be given dye as a shot into the joint before the x-ray. This dye will help your joint show up better on the x-ray. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. A joint x-ray with dye is called an arthrogram.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your joints. An MRI may show joint damage or other signs of RA. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is RA treated?

  • Medicines:

    • Antirheumatics: These help slow the progress of RA, and reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation.

    • NSAIDs: These medicines decrease swelling and pain. NSAIDs are available without a doctor's order. Ask your caregiver which medicine is right for you. Ask how much medicine to take and when to take it. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems if not taken correctly.

    • Steroids: This medicine may be given to decrease inflammation.

    • Biologic therapy: This medicine helps decrease joint swelling, pain, and stiffness. These medicines increase the risk of serious infection and require careful monitoring.

  • Surgery: This may be done to take out all or part of the joint and put in an artificial joint. This may help reduce pain and repair the joint. Surgery may also be done if you have a joint infection or if the bones in your spine are pressing on nerves.

What are the risks of RA?

Surgery could lead to bleeding or infection. Long-term use of NSAIDs may put you at risk for stomach bleeding or kidney problems. If left untreated, this disease can be very painful and may cause difficulty with your normal daily activities. It may involve other organs, such as your eyes, heart, or liver.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Get physical therapy: A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain. An occupational therapist can teach you skills to help with your daily activities.

  • Use support devices: You may be given splints to wear on your hands to help your joints rest and to decrease inflammation. While you sleep, use a pillow that is firm enough to support your neck and head.

  • Rest when needed: Rest is important if your joints are painful. Limit your activities until your symptoms improve. Gradually start your normal activities when you can do them without pain. Avoid motions and activities that cause strain on your joints, such as heavy exercise and lifting.

  • Use ice or heat: Both can help decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on your joint for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. You can apply heat for 20 minutes every 2 hours. Heat treatment includes hot packs or heat lamps.

How do I find support and more information?

  • Arthritis Foundation
    P.O. Box 7669
    Atlanta , GA 30357-0669
    Phone: 1- 404 - 872-7100
    Phone: 1- 800 - 568-4045
    Web Address:
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease
    Information Clearinghouse
    National Institutes of Health
    1 AMS Circle
    Bethesda , MD 20892-3675
    Phone: 1- 301 - 495-4484
    Phone: 1- 877 - 226-4267
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your skin is itchy, swollen, or has a rash.

  • Your symptoms are getting worse, even with treatment.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have increased joint swelling, pain, or redness.

  • You have sudden shortness of breath.

  • You lose feeling in your hands or feet.

  • You lose feeling on one side of your body.

  • You are not able to control the urge to have a bowel movement or to urinate.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.