Overview of rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune condition that damages the lining of your joints.
If you have RA, you may experience persistent inflammation and joint pain — specifically in your wrists, hands, ankles, and feet. This inflammation can also damage other parts of your body, including your eyes, skin, kidney, lungs, and heart.
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In the early stages of RA, your symptoms may develop gradually and then become more pronounced as time goes on. The most common first sign is stiffness in your joints early in the morning. You may also experience fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, and general muscle achiness.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis typically affect both sides of your body and may include:
- Inflammation and warmth
- Pain and tenderness
- Stiffness and swelling in your joints
Other seemingly unrelated symptoms may include:
- Eye or nerve pain
- Nodules under your skin
- Skin redness and inflammation
- Swollen glands
Be sure to speak with a Dignity Health doctor if you have any of the symptoms listed above. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the risk of damage or deformity to your joints, bone loss, and proper joint function.
RA is an autoimmune disease and therefore develops as a result of your immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissues in your body.
Your immune system works by creating inflammation to kill invading bacteria and viruses. When it instead inflames your healthy tissue, it can cause damage over time.
It isn’t fully known what causes the immune system to misfire. Genetics, diet, hormones, and previous injuries may all increase risk.
Here are some of the common types of RA diagnoses, including juvenile and adult onset:
- Juvenile RA: When RA symptoms appear in those under 17, this is called juvenile idiopathic RA. Symptoms are the same as those experienced by adults and may be permanent or temporary.
- Seropositive RA: Having rheumatoid factor (RF) proteins or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies in your blood often indicates this type. Not everyone who has RF or anti-CCP in their blood has RA. About 80 percent of people with RA have high levels of RF or anti-CCP in their blood. If someone in your family tests positive for one or the other, you are also much more likely to be diagnosed with RA.
- Seronegative RA: In some cases, it is possible to have RA without the presence of either RA proteins or anti-CCP antibodies in your blood. In these “seronegative” cases, your doctor will not be able to diagnose RA using blood analysis alone.
Factors associated with increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Genetics: family history of RA or family members with positive serum tests for RF proteins or anti-CCP antibodies
- Autoimmune sensitivity: a history of previous autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease
- Environmental factors: infections, smoking, and exposure to environmental toxins
- Gender: almost three-quarters of all RA cases occur in women
- Age: the disease becomes more likely with age and most often first appears between the ages of 30 and 50
Some risk factors, such as age, gender, and genetics, can’t be changed. However, it is possible to reduce your risk of developing RA by:
- Quitting smoking (smoking is associated with up to 2.4 times higher risk of RA)
- Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise, as recommended by your doctor
- Limiting your exposure to toxic pollutants such as pesticides and herbicides, asbestos, and silica (if you cannot avoid exposure, make sure to take necessary safety precautions such as wearing proper protective gear)
If you are diagnosed with RA, you can prevent severe complications by seeking treatment as quickly as possible. Managing RA symptoms through medication can delay its progression and help reduce the damage caused to your joints from swelling.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.