Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes symptoms of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of the joints, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling. It may also affect other organs of the body including the heart, lungs and blood vessels. Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women than men and it usually develops in individuals over the age of 40. Treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing joint damage, and commonly includes medication to suppress the immune system and reduce pain and inflammation.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by pain and swelling in the joints. It commonly affects the wrists and fingers but may also affect the elbows, hips, knees and other joints of the body. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Tender joints
  • Redness and warmth in the joints
  • Rheumatoid nodules, or firm bumps of tissue under the skin
  • Morning stiffness
  • Symmetrical pattern of affected joints
  • Fatigue

Complications that may occur as a result of rheumatoid arthritis may include hardened or blocked arteries that may lead to heart problems or an inflammation of lung tissue that may lead to breathing problems.

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which is caused by the body attacking its own healthy tissue. With rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system is attacking the lining or membrane of the joints. The exact cause is unknown, however individuals who have a relative with rheumatoid arthritis may be at a greater risk for developing the disease.

Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis may be difficult to diagnose initially because its symptoms often mimic those of other conditions. Rheumatoid arthritis may eventually be diagnosed after a review of all symptoms and a physical examination. Blood tests may be performed to test for the presence of certain antibodies and X-rays may help to assess the level of joint damage.

Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis

There is no cure currently available for rheumatoid arthritis but medication can be effective in controlling pain, minimizing inflammation and slowing the progression of joint damage. Common medications may include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs

Exercise and physical therapy may also be effective at keeping joints flexible. In severe cases, surgery may be recommended to repair tendons or replace damaged joints.

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The Musculoskeletal Center

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Mass General - North Shore

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