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What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, progressive, and disabling autoimmune disease. It causes inflammation, swelling, and pain in and around the joints and can affect other body organs.
RA usually affects the hands and feet first, but it can occur in any joint. It usually involves the same joints on both sides of the body.
Common symptoms include stiff joints, especially when getting up in the morning or after sitting down for a while. Some people experience fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell.
The Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network estimates that RA affects up to 1% of the world’s population and over 1.3 million people in America.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA is an autoimmune disease. It is also a systemic disease, which means it can affect the whole body. It occurs when a person’s immune system mistakes the body’s healthy tissues for foreign invaders.

As the immune system responds, inflammation occurs in the target tissue or organ. In the case of RA, this can be the joints, lungs, eyes, and heart.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of RA include:
  • pain, swelling, and stiffness in more than one joint
  • symmetrical joint involvement
  • joint deformity
  • unsteadiness when walking
  • a general feeling of being unwell
  • fever
  • loss of function and mobility
  • weight loss
  • weakness
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, the symptoms usually affect the same joints on both sides of the body.
Symptoms tend to come and go. During a remission, they can disappear, or they can be mild. However, during a flare, they can be severe.

Causes

Nobody knows what causes the immune system to malfunction and leads to RA.

Some people appear to have genetic factors that make it more likely, according to Genetics Home Reference. One theory is that bacteria or a virus triggers RA in people who have this genetic feature.

In RA, the immune system’s antibodies attack the synovium, which is the smooth lining of a joint. When this happens, pain and inflammation result.

Inflammation causes the synovium to thicken. Eventually, if left untreated, it can invade and destroy cartilage — the connective tissue that cushions the ends of the bones.

The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together can also weaken and stretch. The joint eventually loses its shape and configuration. The damage can be severe.

Risk factors

The CDCTrusted Source note that people with a higher risk of developing RA may include those who:
  • are age 60 years or above
  • are female
  • have specific genetic traits
  • have never given birth
  • have obesity
  • smoke tobacco or whose parents smoked when they were children.
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