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Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the small joints in your hands and feet. Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.

An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. In addition to causing joint problems, rheumatoid arthritis sometimes can affect other organs of the body — such as the skin, eyes, lungs and blood vessels.

Although rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, it usually begins after age 40. The disorder is much more common in women.

Treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing joint damage.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints
  • Morning stiffness that may last for hours
  • Firm bumps of tissue under the skin on your arms (rheumatoid nodules)
  • Fatigue, fever and weight loss

Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.

As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.

Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium — the lining of the membranes that surround your joints.

The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint.

The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.

Doctors don't know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don't actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.

Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Sex. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Age. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins between the ages of 40 and 60.
  • Family history. If a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of developing:

  • Osteoporosis. Rheumatoid arthritis itself, along with some medications used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your risk of osteoporosis — a condition that weakens your bones and makes them more prone to fracture.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. If rheumatoid arthritis affects your wrists, the inflammation can compress the nerve that serves most of your hand and fingers.
  • Heart problems. Rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses your heart.
  • Lung disease. People with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
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