What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic (long-term) inflammatory disease affecting the joints. It differs from osteoarthritis in which the joints are damaged without an inflammatory process (eg, by aging, being overweight or previous injury).
Rheumatoid arthritis is thought to affect 0.6% or 1.3 million people in the U.S. with two to three times as many women affected as men. It varies greatly in its form and severity from person to person. The most common age for the disease to start is between 40 and 50 years, but it can develop at any age.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
In some people the symptoms start quite slowly, but in a few people the disease develops rapidly. It is important that rheumatoid arthritis is recognized early so that treatment can be started as soon as possible.
Initially, there is pain and swelling in a few joints, usually in the feet and hands. The affected joints will feel stiff on waking and may feel warm to the touch.
In mild or early forms of the disease, the symptoms may not be severe enough for the sufferer to seek medical help. If the disease develops rapidly, there may be pain and swelling in many joints and severe morning stiffness, which will cause problems in everyday movements and can have a significant negative impact on the sufferer’s quality of life.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in which the tissues of the joints, including cartilage, and bone are affected. This inflammation causes progressive damage to the joints. Once damaged, the joints are unable to heal properly. Occasionally, other parts of the body may be affected by rheumatoid arthritis, including the eyes, heart, lungs, skin, blood vessels and blood cells.
General symptoms of inflammation, such as fever, sweats, weight loss and fatigue may also be present, even in people with mild forms of the disease.
In most people, rheumatoid arthritis follows a relapsing-remitting course, which means that there are periods where symptoms are worsened (usually referred to as a relapse or flare-up) interspersed with periods of little inflammation. The period of time between flare-ups varies from person to person and can range from months to years.
About a third of people with rheumatoid arthritis will also develop rheumatoid nodules–hard lumps just under the skin. These usually occur on the arms just below the elbows but may also occur on the hands and feet.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of disease known as an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks part of the body, in this case the joints.
It is not known what causes rheumatoid arthritis but it is thought that some people may have one or more genes that make them more susceptible to the disease. It is thought that in these people the disease may be triggered by environmental factors, such as infection or hormonal changes.
People with a family member affected by rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than those without. Smokers are also more likely than non-smokers to develop rheumatoid arthritis.