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Rheumatoid arthritis

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jan 25, 2023.

Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.

An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues.

Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.

The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause pain, swelling and deformity. As the tissue that lines your joints (synovial membrane) becomes inflamed and thickened, fluid builds up and joints erode and degrade.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:

Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.

As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.

About 40% of people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don't involve the joints. Areas that may be affected include:

Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.

Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Normally, your immune system helps protect your body from infection and disease. In rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your joints. It can also cause medical problems with your heart, lungs, nerves, eyes and skin.

Doctors don't know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don't actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more likely to react to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:

Complications

Rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of developing:

Diagnosis

Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. There is no one blood test or physical finding to confirm the diagnosis.

During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, redness and warmth. He or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.

Blood tests

People with rheumatoid arthritis often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, also known as sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP) level, which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.

Imaging tests

Your doctor may recommend X-rays to help track the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in your joints over time. MRI and ultrasound tests can help your doctor judge the severity of the disease in your body.

Treatment

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But clinical studies indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Medications

The types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you've had rheumatoid arthritis.

Therapy

Your doctor may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who can teach you exercises to help keep your joints flexible. The therapist may also suggest new ways to do daily tasks that will be easier on your joints. For example, you may want to pick up an object using your forearms.

Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints. For instance, a kitchen knife equipped with a hand grip helps protect your finger and wrist joints. Certain tools, such as buttonhooks, can make it easier to get dressed. Catalogs and medical supply stores are good places to look for ideas.

Surgery

If medications fail to prevent or slow joint damage, you and your doctor may consider surgery to repair damaged joints. Surgery may help restore your ability to use your joint. It can also reduce pain and improve function.

Rheumatoid arthritis surgery may involve one or more of the following procedures:

Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection and pain. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.

Lifestyle and home remedies

You can take steps to care for your body if you have rheumatoid arthritis. These self-care measures, when used along with your rheumatoid arthritis medications, can help you manage your signs and symptoms:

Alternative medicine

Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:

Coping and support

The pain and disability associated with rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person's work and family life. Depression and anxiety are common, as are feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.

The degree to which rheumatoid arthritis affects your daily activities depends in part on how well you cope with the disease. Talk to your doctor or nurse about strategies for coping. With time you'll learn what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:

Preparing for an appointment

While you might first discuss your symptoms with your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (rheumatologist) for further evaluation.

What you can do

Write a list that includes:

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask questions, such as:

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