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Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Definition and Facts

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic joint disease that damages the joints of the body. It is also a systemic disease that potentially affects internal organs of the body and leads to disability. The joint damage is caused by inflammation of the joint lining tissue. Inflammation is normally a response by the body's immune system to "assaults" such as infections, wounds, and foreign objects. In rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammation is misdirected to attack the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is often referred to as RA.

  • The inflammation in the joints causes joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of function.
  • The inflammation often affects other organs and systems of the body, including the lungs, heart, and kidneys.
  • If the inflammation is not slowed or stopped, it can permanently damage the affected joints and other tissues.

Rheumatoid arthritis can be confused with other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis or arthritis associated with infections. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues it is supposed to protect. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of autoimmune, inflammatory arthritis in adults. It can also affect children.

  • The immune system in rheumatoid arthritis is misdirected and produces specialized cells and chemicals that are released into the bloodstream and attack body tissues.
  • This abnormal immune response causes inflammation and thickening of the membrane (synovium) that lines the joint. Inflammation of the synovium is called synovitis and is the hallmark of an inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • As the synovitis expands inside and outside of the joint, it can damage the bone and cartilage of the joint and the surrounding tissues, such as ligaments, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. This leads to deformity and loss of function.

Rheumatoid arthritis most often affects the smaller joints, such as those of the hands and/or feet, wrists, elbows, knees, and/or ankles, but any joint can be affected. The symptoms often lead to significant discomfort and disability.

  • Many people with rheumatoid arthritis have difficulty carrying out normal activities of daily living, such as standing, walking, dressing, washing, using the toilet, preparing food, and carrying out household chores.
  • The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis interfere with the ability to work for many people.
  • On average, life expectancy is somewhat shorter for people with rheumatoid arthritis than for the general population. This higher mortality rate does not mean that everyone with rheumatoid arthritis has a shortened life span. Rheumatoid arthritis itself is not a fatal disease. However, it can be associated with many complications and treatment-related side effects that can contribute to premature death.

Although rheumatoid arthritis most often affects the joints, it is a disease of the entire body. It can affect many organs and body systems besides the joints. Therefore, rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systemic disease.

About 1.3 million people in the United States are believed to have rheumatoid arthritis.

  • About 75% of those affected are women. Women are two to three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis affects all ages, races, and social and ethnic groups.
  • It is most likely to strike people 35-50 years of age, but it can occur in children, teenagers, and elderly people. Rheumatoid arthritis that begins in people under 16 years of age is similar but not identical to the disease in adults and is referred to as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (formerly juvenile rheumatoid arthritis).
  • Worldwide, about 1% of people are believed to have rheumatoid arthritis, but the rate varies among different groups of people. For example, rheumatoid arthritis affects about 5%-6% of some Native-American groups, while the rate is very low in some Caribbean people of African descent.
  • The rate is about 2%-3% in people who have a close relative with rheumatoid arthritis, such as a parent, brother or sister, or child.

Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, the disease can be controlled in most people. Early, aggressive therapy, soon after the initial diagnosis, which is optimally targeted to stop or slow down inflammation in the joints can prevent or reduce symptoms, prevent or reduce joint destruction and deformity, and prevent or lessen disability and other complications.

Although rheumatoid arthritis most often affects the joints, it is a disease of the entire body. It can affect many organs and body systems besides the joints. Therefore, rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systemic disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/17/2015

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The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA):

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Treatment

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The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can vary greatly from patient to patient. What were your symptoms at the onset of your disease?

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Rheumatoid Arthritis - My Doctor Says I Need Remicade

What are the side effects of Remicade treatment?

The most common side effects of Remicade are upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, cough, rash, back pain, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, weakness, and fever.

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