Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the joints, causing inflammation, pain, swelling, and stiffness. It typically manifests as symmetric, erosive synovitis, which can lead to joint destruction and deformity if left untreated. Although RA predominantly targets the joints, it can also cause extraarticular involvement and systemic complications in some cases.

The precise cause of rheumatoid arthritis remains unknown; however, various genetic and environmental factors have been implicated in its development. Some of the risk factors include a family history of RA, being female, and smoking. Early detection and prompt management of RA are crucial to prevent joint damage, alleviate symptoms, and improve overall quality of life.

Key Takeaways

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that mainly affects the joints and can lead to joint destruction if left untreated.
  • The exact cause of RA is uncertain, but genetic and environmental factors, such as family history and smoking, contribute to its development.
  • Early diagnosis and proper management are essential to minimize joint damage and improve quality of life for those living with rheumatoid arthritis.

Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. It is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This section will explore the nature of this autoimmune disease, as well as the influence of age and sex on its development and progression.

Autoimmune Disease

RA is a systemic autoimmune disorder that primarily targets the synovial joints, leading to inflammation and progressive joint damage. The exact cause of RA is unknown, but genetic and environmental factors are believed to contribute to the development of the disease. The immune system of a person with RA produces antibodies and inflammatory chemicals that damage the joint tissues, ultimately resulting in joint destruction and disability.


Rheumatoid arthritis can affect people of any age, but the onset of the disease usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 60. Cases of RA in younger individuals, including children, are referred to as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. As people age, the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis increases. However, the severity and progression of the disease can vary greatly between individuals, regardless of age.


RA is more prevalent in women than men. In fact, women are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than men. Hormonal factors may play a role in this difference, as fluctuations in hormone levels, particularly during pregnancy and menopause, can impact the severity and progression of rheumatoid arthritis. While both men and women with RA can experience significant pain and disability, research suggests that women may experience greater difficulty in performing daily activities and a lower overall quality of life due to the disease.

Causes and Risk Factors

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a complex autoimmune disorder with various contributing factors. In this section, we will explore the genetic and environmental factors that play a role in the development of this disease.


Several studies have identified a strong genetic component in RA susceptibility. Certain genes, such as HLA-DRB1 and PTPN22, have been shown to significantly increase the risk of developing RA1. Moreover, individuals with a family history of RA also have an elevated risk of being affected by this disease2. It’s important to note that while these genetic factors can contribute to a predisposition for RA, they do not guarantee the onset of the disease.

Environmental Factors

There are also various environmental factors that can contribute to RA development, such as smoking and exposure to certain infectious agents. Smoking in particular has been strongly associated with an increased risk of RA3. This may be due to the fact that smoking can provoke an autoimmune response in genetically susceptible individuals4.

In addition to smoking, exposure to certain infectious agents, such as Epstein-Barr virus and Porphyromonas gingivalis (a bacterium commonly associated with periodontal disease), have been suggested to be potential triggers for RA5. However, more research is needed to fully understand the connection between infections and RA development.

To summarize, rheumatoid arthritis is a multifactorial autoimmune disorder with both genetic and environmental factors contributing to its development. While genetic predisposition plays a significant role in RA risk, environmental triggers, such as smoking and exposure to infections, can also impact the disease’s onset and progression.

Symptoms and Affected Joints

Joint Pain and Inflammation

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) primarily affects the joints, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. The most commonly involved joints are the hands, wrists, and knees. In the early stages, small joints like those in the hands and wrists may be affected, causing pain and limiting mobility. As the disease progresses, larger joints like the knees and ankles may also be affected. Swelling is often symmetric, meaning it occurs on both sides of the body1.

Morning stiffness is a common symptom, typically lasting at least one hour before subsiding2. RA may also cause the joints to feel warm and tender to touch. In some cases, patients may experience flares of intense pain and swelling, which can last for days or weeks.

Extra-articular Symptoms

In addition to joint symptoms, RA can also cause extra-articular symptoms, affecting other parts of the body:

  • Fatigue: Many individuals with RA experience persistent fatigue, even when their joint symptoms are well-controlled.
  • Fever: Low-grade fever may occur during flare-ups, indicating increased inflammation in the body.
  • Skin: Some RA patients develop rheumatoid nodules3, which are firm bumps under the skin, often located near the affected joints.
  • Eyes: Eye inflammation and dryness can occur in some cases, leading to discomfort and potential vision problems.
  • Lungs: RA can cause inflammation in the lining of the lungs (pleurisy), leading to chest pain and difficulty breathing4.
  • Heart: Inflammation in the lining of the heart (pericarditis) can occur, causing chest pain and increasing the risk of heart complications5.
  • Bones: Over time, persistent inflammation may lead to bone erosion and an increased risk of fractures.

In some patients, RA can also affect organs such as the kidneys and liver. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial to managing symptoms and preventing long-term damage to the joints and other affected body parts.

Diagnosis and Tests

Physical Exam

When diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis, a rheumatologist will first conduct a physical exam. This involves evaluating the joints for signs of inflammation, swelling, tenderness, and range of motion. The rheumatologist will also assess the patient’s overall health and inquire about any symptoms experienced, such as fatigue, stiffness, and pain. This information is crucial in determining whether a patient may have rheumatoid arthritis or another condition causing joint inflammation, like osteoarthritis or lupus.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are a key component of the rheumatoid arthritis diagnostic process. There is no single test that confirms rheumatoid arthritis, but a combination of tests can provide valuable information and support the diagnosis. Important blood tests for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Rheumatoid factor (RF): This test detects the presence of RF, an antibody found in approximately 70-80% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, RF may also be present in other autoimmune conditions and even in healthy individuals, so a positive RF test alone is not diagnostic.
  • Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA): This test looks for specific antibodies often found in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. A positive ACPA test, combined with other diagnostic factors, increases the likelihood of a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis.
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP): These tests measure the level of inflammation in the body. Elevated levels are common in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but they can also occur in other inflammatory conditions.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests, such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRIs, can be helpful in evaluating joint damage and inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Although not always necessary for diagnosis, these tests can provide additional information to support the clinical findings.

  • X-ray: An X-ray can reveal bone erosion and joint space narrowing, common signs of rheumatoid arthritis. However, X-ray images may appear normal in the early stages of the disease.
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound can detect synovitis (joint inflammation) and early joint damage, even before it appears on X-rays. This non-invasive and radiation-free imaging technique is particularly useful in the early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a more sensitive imaging technique that can detect inflammation and structural changes in the joints. While not commonly used in the initial diagnostic evaluation, MRI may help monitor disease progression and response to treatment.

Treatment Options


There are several types of medications available to help manage rheumatoid arthritis (RA). One common type is disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which can slow down the progression of RA and reduce joint damage source. Another option is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can help relieve pain and inflammation in the joints. In some cases, corticosteroids may be prescribed for short-term use to control severe symptoms of RA.

Lifestyle Changes

Making certain lifestyle changes can also help in managing RA symptoms:

  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can help to strengthen muscles around joints and maintain overall joint function. Low-impact activities, such as swimming or walking, are recommended for people with RA source.
  • Diet: A balanced diet is crucial for overall health, and some studies suggest that certain diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help to reduce inflammation and improve symptoms of RA.
  • Infection prevention: Because RA can affect the immune system, it’s essential to take precautions against infections. This includes practicing good hygiene, staying up to date with vaccinations, and seeking medical attention if you develop signs of an infection.

Surgical Procedures

In some cases, when RA has caused severe joint damage or pain that is unresponsive to medications, surgical procedures may be considered as a treatment option source. There are a few different types of surgeries that might be recommended for RA patients:

These treatment options aim to alleviate joint pain and improve overall mobility in affected individuals. It is essential to discuss your specific situation with your medical team to determine the most suitable course of action for your RA management.

Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease that affects a person’s day-to-day life. Several aspects of managing the disease include coping with pain and taking the necessary measures to maintain a good quality of life.

Managing Flares

RA flares are characterized by increased joint pain, swelling, and warmth. The frequency and duration of these flares vary from person to person. When experiencing a flare, some helpful strategies include:

In addition to these immediate steps, maintaining a healthy lifestyle through regular exercise, weight loss (if necessary), and following a well-rounded diet can help manage flares and reduce the frequency of their occurrence.

Coping with Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain from RA can be challenging, and it’s essential to develop effective coping strategies. Here are some suggestions to help you manage chronic pain:

Remember, living with rheumatoid arthritis requires adaptation and resilience. By proactively managing flares and chronic pain, you’ll help maintain a better quality of life while navigating this chronic disease.

Complications and Comorbidities

Joint Deformities

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) can lead to various joint deformities that worsen with time, causing joint damage and disabilities. This autoimmune disease affects the synovium, the protective lining of joints that helps in their smooth movement. As the synovium becomes inflamed, it leads to joint damage and eventually deformities. Some common deformities include swan neck deformity and ulnar deviation of the fingers.

Joint damage can cause muscles surrounding the joints to weaken, leading to a loss of function. Moreover, family history can be a factor that increases the risk of developing joint deformities in RA patients. In some cases, splints may be used to provide support for the affected joints and reduce pain.

Systemic Effects

RA can have systemic effects beyond the joints, affecting other organs and systems in one’s body. Some of these comorbidities and complications include:

  • Loss of appetite: Inflammation from RA can lead to a decrease in appetite, causing unintentional weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Kidneys: RA may lead to inflammation in kidneys, increasing the risk of kidney diseases.
  • Infections: RA patients are more susceptible to infections due to the disease’s impact on the immune system and certain medications.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: Inflammation in the wrist joints can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, causing pain, numbness, and tingling in the fingers.
  • Lung disease: RA patients are at a higher risk of developing lung diseases such as interstitial lung disease, pleurisy, and rheumatoid nodules. Inflammation and scarring can occur in the lungs, leading them to lose their function.
  • Disability: RA can significantly impair daily life and independence, making simple tasks like walking, dressing, and eating challenging.

Although RA patients may experience varying degrees of complications and comorbidities, remission is possible through effective management and treatment, significantly reducing these negative effects. By understanding and addressing these complications, clinicians can better help patients manage their RA and improve their overall quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis in hands?

Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in hands can include joint stiffness, especially in the morning, swelling, warmth, and pain in the finger joints and wrists. These symptoms tend to occur symmetrically, affecting both hands equally. Sometimes, people might also experience fatigue and low-grade fever.

How can rheumatoid arthritis be cured permanently?

Currently, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. However, with proper treatment and management, it is possible to achieve remission and control the disease’s symptoms. Treatments include medications such as pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), as well as physical therapy and, in some cases, surgery.

What factors can trigger rheumatoid arthritis?

Although the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known, it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some potential triggers include smoking, infections, hormonal changes, and obesity. Stress can also exacerbate symptoms in some individuals.

At what age does rheumatoid arthritis usually start?

Rheumatoid arthritis can begin at any age, but it most commonly starts between the ages of 30 and 50. It is more prevalent in women than in men, with the female-to-male ratio being approximately 3:1.

What are the four stages of rheumatoid arthritis?

The four stages of rheumatoid arthritis are:

  1. Stage 1 – Early RA: Mild inflammation in the joint lining, causing pain, warmth, and minor stiffness.
  2. Stage 2 – Moderate RA: Increased inflammation leading to the thickening of the joint lining, along with cartilage damage.
  3. Stage 3 – Severe RA: The inflammation damages both cartilage and bone, resulting in unstable joints and significant pain.
  4. Stage 4 – End-stage RA: Joint inflammation subsides, but the damage to joints is irreversible, often leading to deformities and disability.

How can you tell if rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse?

Signs that rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse can include increasing joint pain and stiffness, progressively restricted joint mobility, swelling in new joints, persistent fatigue, and a low-grade fever. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional if these symptoms worsen or are not well-controlled, as early intervention can help slow down the disease progression.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2822877/ ↩ ↩2

  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S152169421730013X ↩ ↩2

  3. https://arthritis-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/ar1997 ↩ ↩2

  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2206366/ ↩ ↩2

  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4485352/ ↩ ↩2