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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease. It leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs.
RA; Arthritis - rheumatoid
The cause of RA is unknown. It is an autoimmune disease. This means the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
RA can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age. Women get RA more often than men.
Infection, genes, and hormone changes may be linked to the disease. Smoking may also be linked to RA.
It is much less common than osteoarthritis, which is a condition that occurs in many people due to wear and tear on the joints as they age.
Most of the time, RA affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are the most commonly affected.
The disease often begins slowly. Early symptoms may include minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.
Joint symptoms may include:
Other symptoms include:
There is no test that can determine for sure whether you have RA. Most people with RA will have some abnormal test results. However, some people will have normal results for all tests.
Two lab tests that often help in the diagnosis are:
Other tests that may be done include:
RA most often requires long-term treatment. Treatment includes medicines, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA with newer drug categories can be very helpful to slow joint destruction and prevent deformities.
Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are often the drugs that are tried first in people with RA. They are prescribed along with rest, strengthening exercise, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Anti-inflammatory medicines: These include aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib.
Antimalarial medicines: This group of medicines includes hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil). They are most often used along with methotrexate. It may be weeks or months before you see any benefit from these drugs.
Corticosteroids: These medicines work very well to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, but they can have long-term side effects. Therefore, they should be taken only for a short time and in low doses when possible.
Biologic agents: These drugs are designed to affect parts of the immune system that play a role in the disease process of rheumatoid arthritis.
They may be given when other medicines for rheumatoid arthritis have not worked. Sometimes biologic drugs are started sooner, along with other rheumatoid arthritis drugs. However, because they are very expensive, insurance approval is generally required.
Most of them are given either under the skin or into a vein There are different types of biologic agents.
Biologic agents can be very helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. However, people taking these drugs must be watched very closely because of serious risk factors:
Surgery may be needed to correct severely damaged joints. Surgery may include:
Range-of-motion exercises and exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist can delay the loss of joint function and help keep muscles strong.
Sometimes, therapists will use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and improve joint movement.
Other therapies that may help ease joint pain include:
Some people with RA may have intolerance or allergies to certain foods. A balanced nutritious diet is recommended. It may be helpful to eat foods rich in fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids). Smoking cigarettes should be stopped. Excessive alcohol should also be avoided.
Some people may benefit from taking part in an arthritis support group.
How well a person does depends on the severity of symptoms and the response to treatment. It is very important to have regular return visits to the provider, who will adjust treatment to control the arthritis.
Permanent joint damage may occur without proper treatment. Early treatment with a three-drug DMARD combination known as "triple therapy," or with the biologic drugs, can decrease joint pain and damage. These drugs are given by specialists called rheumatologists.
If not well treated, rheumatoid arthritis can affect nearly every part of the body. Complications may include:
However, these complications can most often be avoided with proper treatment. The treatments for RA can also cause serious side effects. Talk to your health care provider about the possible side effects of treatment and what to do if they occur.
Call your health care provider if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is no known prevention. Smoking cigarettes appears to worsen RA, so it is important to avoid tobacco. Proper early treatment can help prevent further joint damage.
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Reviewed By: Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.