Despite experts’ growing knowledge about rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the exact cause of RA is still a mystery. We still can’t say with certainty why or how someone will develop RA.

The joint pain of RA often begins in the hands or feet. Read Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Symptoms

However, experts have found 4 factors that seem to be connected with the risk of developing RA.

See Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Here are the 4 factors that appear to be the likeliest causes for RA, according to recent research:


1. Your genes

There is a specific genetic marker known as HLA-DR4 that is found more frequently in those with RA: 60 to 70% of Caucasians with RA have it, compared with 20% of the general population. But the gene is not a definitive enough sign to test for it—doctors usually diagnose RA without doing a genetic test.

See Blood Tests to Help Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

2. Your lifestyle

Several lifestyle factors have been shown to play a role in RA risk, including:

  • Smoking—nicotine in the bloodstream can increase rheumatoid factor levels
  • Diet—one large study of women found that consuming sugary sodas raised RA risk
  • Weight—those who are overweight or obese are at higher risk

See Managing RA Fatigue Through Diet and Exercise

3. Your hormones

Women are more at risk for RA than men, and many experts think this is because women are more subject to hormone fluctuations. Specifically, RA risk seems to go up when hormone levels drop, such as right after pregnancy or at menopause. For this reason, some researchers are investigating whether oral contraceptives can help women decrease their risk for RA, or lessen symptoms if they already have RA.

See Why Are Women More Prone to Osteoarthritis?

4. Your body (infections and microbiome)

Some research points to connections between RA and certain viral or bacterial infections in the body. There are also researchers looking into the connection between RA and the body’s microbiome. Your body hosts a broad range of microorganisms, particularly in the intestinal tract—this is known as the microbiome. More research is needed to establish the connections between RA, infections, and the microbiome.

See Connections Between the Gut Microbiome and Arthritis

Having some—or even all—of the characteristics listed above is no guarantee that someone will develop RA.

See Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Treatment

However, those who have risk factors they can’t control, such as women with family members who have RA, may want to act on the factors they can control by watching their weight or avoiding smoking.

See Improving the Gut Microbiome and Arthritis Symptoms with Diet

Learn more:

Biologics for RA and Other Autoimmune Conditions

Are My Painful Joints Caused By Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) or Something Else?