What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints. Autoimmune diseases are illnesses that occur when the body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause inflammation of the tissue around the joints, as well as in other organs in the body. Because it can affect multiple organs of the body, rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systemic illness and is sometimes called rheumatoid disease. While rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic illness, meaning it can last for years, patients may experience long periods without symptoms. Typically, however, rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive illness that has the potential to cause joint destruction and functional disability.
Who Is at Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common rheumatic disease, affecting approximately 1.3 million people in the United States, according to current census data. The disease is three times more common in women as in men. It afflicts people of all races equally. The disease can begin at any age, but it most often starts after age 40 and before 60. In some families, multiple members can be affected, suggesting a genetic basis for the disorder.
What Is Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) is arthritis that causes joint inflammation and stiffness for more than six weeks in a child 16 years of age or younger. It affects approximately 50,000 children in the United States. Inflammation causes redness, swelling, warmth, and soreness in the joints, although many children with JRA do not complain of joint pain. Any joint can be affected, and inflammation may limit the mobility of affected joints.
What Is the Difference Between Normal, Healthy Joints and Arthritic Joints?
A joint is where two bones meet to allow movement of body parts. Arthritis means joint inflammation. The joint inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis causes swelling, pain, stiffness, and redness in the joints. The inflammation of rheumatoid disease can also occur in tissues around the joints, such as the tendons, ligaments, and muscles. In some patients with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation leads to the destruction of the cartilage, bone, and ligaments, causing deformity of the joints. Damage to the joints can occur early in the disease and progress as the individual ages.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. Even though infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi have long been suspected, none has been proven as the cause. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is a very active area of worldwide research. Some scientists believe that the tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis may be genetically inherited. It is suspected that certain infections or factors in the environment might trigger the immune system to attack the body's own tissues in susceptible individuals, resulting in inflammation in various organs of the body including the joints. Environmental factors also seem to play some role in causing rheumatoid arthritis. Recently, scientists have reported that smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Remission, Relapse, and Flares
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis come and go, depending on the degree of tissue inflammation. When body tissues are inflamed, the disease is active. When tissue inflammation subsides, the disease is inactive (in remission). Remissions can occur spontaneously or with treatment and can last weeks, months, or years. During remissions, symptoms of the disease disappear and patients generally feel well. When the disease becomes active again (relapse), symptoms return. The return of disease activity and symptoms is called a flare. The course of rheumatoid arthritis varies from patient to patient, and periods of flares and remissions are typical.
What Are the Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
When the disease is active, symptoms can include fatigue, lack of appetite, low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, and stiffness. Muscle and joint stiffness are usually most notable in the morning and after periods of inactivity. Arthritis is common during disease flares. Also during flares, joints frequently become red, swollen, painful, and tender. This occurs because the lining tissue of the joint (synovium) becomes inflamed, resulting in the production of excessive joint fluid (synovial fluid). The synovium also thickens with inflammation (synovitis).
What Are the Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis? (cont.)
In rheumatoid arthritis, multiple joints are usually inflamed in a symmetrical pattern (both sides of the body affected). The small joints of both the hands and wrists are often involved. Simple tasks of daily living, such as turning door knobs and opening jars can become difficult during flares. The small joints of the feet are also commonly involved. Chronic inflammation can cause damage to body tissues, cartilage, and bone. This leads to a loss of cartilage and erosion and weakness of the bones as well as the muscles, resulting in joint deformity, destruction, and loss of function.
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Inflammation of Organs