Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the synovial lining between the joints and can lead to severe pain and loss of function, especially in the small joints in the hands and feet. Also classified as an autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by the misguided messages sent by the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues. There are currently over 2 million Americans, or about 1% of the U.S. population, living with rheumatoid arthritis.
The disease can affect any joint in the body, although it most commonly occurs in the small joints of the hands, wrists, and feet. In addition to painful swelling, stiffness, and deformities of the joints, rheumatoid arthritis can cause fever and fatigue. The presence and severity of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms varies between individuals: some people develop severe, sudden pain while others have very mild symptoms.
Onset of the disease is usually gradual, but symptoms may progress rapidly, so early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to limiting the scope of potential joint damage.
Stage 1: The first stage of rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by the swelling of the synovial tissue, which can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joint.
Stage 2: The inflammation then triggers the growth and division of cells that cause the synovium to thicken, causing more swelling and pain.
Stage 3: The third stage involves the release of enzymes by the inflamed cells; these enzymes damage bone and cartilage, which can alter the alignment of the joints, and lead to further pain and deformities of the joints.
In This Article:
While the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, researchers believe a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors are to blame. The condition is two to three times more prevalent in women, and age at the onset of symptoms is generally between 30 and 60 years old. The discrepancy between the sexes is thought to be linked predominately to environmental factors, including smoking, use of oral contraceptives, and Vitamin D deficiency - all of which are more common among women.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but early diagnosis and treatment can go a long way in limiting joint damage and subsequent loss of mobility. Rheumatoid arthritis can be a difficult disease to diagnose, requiring a combination of medical history, physical exam, laboratory testing, and imaging studies. Symptoms can be treated with various medications.