What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Arthritis is a general term for inflammation (redness, warmth, swelling, and pain) in joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of chronic (ongoing) arthritis that occurs in joints on both sides of the body (for instance, both hands, wrists, and/or knees), which helps distinguish it from other types of arthritis.
In addition to affecting the joints, rheumatoid arthritis may occasionally affect other parts of the body, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, blood, nerves, or kidneys.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that patient’s immune system (the body’s infection-fighting system) is overreacting against itself. The result can cause some or all of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Who is affected by rheumatoid arthritis?
- Rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 1.3 million people in the United States.
- It is 2.5 times more common in women than in men.
- It usually occurs in people who are between the ages of 20 and 50; however, young children and the elderly can also develop rheumatoid arthritis.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. However, it is believed to be caused by a combination the following factors:
- Genetics (heredity)
- Abnormal immunity
- The environment
Normally, the immune system protects the body from disease. In people who have rheumatoid arthritis, something—possibly infections, cigarette smoking, and physical or emotional stress, among other causes—triggers the immune system to attack the joints (and sometimes other organs).
Gender, heredity, and genes largely determine a person's risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. For example, women are about three times more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include the following:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Stiffness, especially in the morning or after sitting for long periods
- Fatigue (tiredness and excessive sleepiness)
Rheumatoid arthritis affects each person differently. In most people, joint symptoms may develop gradually over several years. In other people, rheumatoid arthritis may proceed rapidly. A few people may have rheumatoid arthritis for a limited period of time and then go into remission (a time with no symptoms).
Cartilage normally acts as a “shock absorber” between the joints. Uncontrolled inflammation causes the destruction and wearing down of the cartilage, which leads to joint deformities. Eventually, the bone itself erodes, potentially leading to fusion of the joint (an effort of the body to protect itself from constant irritation). This process is aided by specific cells and substances of the immune system, which are produced in the joints but also circulate and cause symptoms throughout the body.