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There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but it can go into remission. Furthermore, treatments are getting better all the time, sometimes to the point a drug and lifestyle regimen can stop the symptoms in their tracks.
As a rule, the severity of rheumatoid arthritis waxes and wanes. Periods of active inflammation and tissue damage marked by worsening of symptoms (flares) are interspersed with periods of little or no activity, in which symptoms get better or go away altogether (remission). The duration of these cycles varies widely among individuals.
Outcomes are also highly variable. Some people have a relatively mild condition, with little disability or loss of function. Others at the opposite end of the spectrum experience severe disability due to pain and loss of function. Disease that remains persistently active for more than a year is likely to lead to joint deformities and disability. Approximately 40% of people have some degree of disability 10 years after their diagnosis. For most, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic progressive illness, but about 5%-10% of people experience remission without treatment. This is uncommon, however, after the first three to six months.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not fatal, but complications of the disease shorten life span by a few years in some individuals. Although generally rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured, the disease gradually becomes less aggressive and symptoms may even improve. However, any damage to joints and ligaments and any deformities that have occurred are permanent. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect parts of the body other than the joints.
The early treatment and use of DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, which interfere in the immune processes that promote inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.) and biologic response modifiers in rheumatoid arthritis has resulted in patients experiencing more profound relief of symptoms and less joint damage and less disability over time. So the prognosis is best when treatment is started early. New treatments are on the horizon.
For more information, read our full medical article on rheumatoid arthritis.