Rheumatoid Arthritis

About Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an incurable chronic inflammatory disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of function in the joints throughout the body, but most typically affects the small joints of the hands and feet. The immune system is supposed to protect the body, but with rheumatoid arthritis, it turns against the body, attacking tissues and even organs including the eyes and lungs. Rheumatoid arthritis can strike at any age although it usually begins between the ages of 40 and 60 and is more common in women than men. Early diagnosis is important because if left untreated, it can cause joint damage and even permanent joint destruction.

Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing other health problems including osteoporosis – bone loss that leads to weak and brittle bones that are highly susceptible to fracture; carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist that leads to numbness, tingling and weakness in the hands and wrists; heart problems such as clogged arteries, heart attack and heart failure; and inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are caused by inflammation. That means your body’s immune system is releasing chemicals into your blood and joints that cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and fatigue. Why? Because when you have RA, the normal signals that tell your immune system to spring into action — to protect your body from harm by viruses, bacteria, or injuries — are crossed. That’s called autoimmunity. In an autoimmune disease like RA, your immune system triggers inflammation and attacks your healthy joints and tissues by mistake. That’s why you have pain, swelling, and other symptoms.

This information is part of CreakyJoints’ comprehensive guide for patients living with rheumatoid arthritis. Learn more or download Raising the Voice of Patients: A Patient’s Guide to Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Sometimes you feel like your immune system is constantly attacking your body; at other times symptoms will come and go. As a reminder, RA is different than OA (osteoarthritis), which is caused by mechanical wear and tear on joints, not an autoimmune process. However, both types of arthritis may occur at the same time.

Even over just a few months or years, RA inflammation can do a lot of damage to the lining around your joints, called the synovium. This inflamed lining can cause damage to the tissues around your joint, like your cartilage or ligaments that hold the joint together. When your cartilage breaks down, your bones can rub against each other and cause more pain. If your ligaments tear, your joints may dislocate and later become deformed. If that happens, joints can look twisted or gnarled, and be harder to move.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can be different for each person, but here are the most common ones:

  • Joint pain, swelling, or redness, often in the same joint on both sides of your body
  • Morning stiffness lasting over an hour with “regelling,” or stiffness, after sitting for a while
  • Fatigue, or feeling very tired most of the time
  • Feeling sick, almost like you have the flu
  • Achy muscles
  • Loss of your appetite, so you may lose weight without wanting to
  • Rheumatoid nodules, or swollen bumps under your skin around your joints
  • Painful reactions in your eyes or in the lining around your heart or lungs (less common than other symptoms)
  • Cognitive dysfunction (“brain fog”) — a decrease in your ability to think, remember, or concentrate to the point that it interferes with your daily functioning. The exact cause of this is unknown. It could be related to the inflammation, chronic pain, or even lack of sleep.

RA can cause you to develop holes or “erosions” in the bones around your joints. These erosions are caused by inflammatory substances that can dissolve tiny parts of the bone. This is also called “erosive disease.” Early treatment may help you prevent bony erosions, so it’s important to get a diagnosis as soon as you can.

To prevent painful bone problems like holes or “erosions” from happening or to slow them down, you have to get your inflammation under control. That’s what your treatment plan — including your RA drugs and other steps like exercise — is designed to do. You want to get inflammation and your disease activity under control.