Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease that affects the synovium, the lining of the joints. This causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. Left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis may damage joints so badly that they no longer function. This disease appears most often in young-adult to middle-age women.

What causes RA?

RA is an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system, which normally protects the body, actually causes harm. In RA, the immune system attacks the joint lining. The reason for this is unknown. Researchers believe it is a combination of genes (what is inherited from parents) and environment (for example, having infections from viruses or bacteria). Also, people who smoke or are overweight have an increased risk of developing RA.

What are the symptoms of RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect most joints. The hands, wrists, elbows, knees, and balls of the feet are common sites. This disease often affects the same joint on both sides of the body. Symptoms may include:

  • Tender, swollen inflamed joints. They may also look red and feel warm.
  • Stiff joints. Long periods of rest or using a joint too long or too hard can make stiffness worse.
  • Joints that have lost normal shape and motion.
  • Feeling tired.

How is RA diagnosed?

To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, your health care provider will ask you a lot of questions about your medical history and current symptoms. He or she will examine you, paying close attention to your joints. You will also have blood tests and X-rays. Your provider will likely recommend that you see a rheumatologist, an arthritis specialist.


Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is chronic disease, but it doesn’t have to keep you from being active. You can help control it with exercise and a healthy lifestyle. Be sure to see your health care provider for scheduled checkups and lab work. At some point, you may be referred to a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in arthritis and related diseases).

Make exercise part of your life

  • Gentle exercise can help lessen your pain. Keep the following in mind:
  • Choose exercises that improve joint motion and make your muscles stronger. Your health care provider or a physical therapist may suggest a few.
  • Most people should exercise for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. This can be broken up into shorter periods throughout the day.
  • Try walking, riding a bike, or doing exercises in a warm pool. Look for programs in your community for people with arthritis. 
  • Don’t push yourself too hard at first. Slowly build up over time.
  • Make sure you warm up for 5 to 10 minutes each time you exercise.
  • If pain and stiffness increase, don't exercise as hard or as long.

Watch your weight

If you weigh more than you should, your weight-bearing joints are under extra pressure. This makes your symptoms worse. To reduce pain and stiffness, try shedding a few of those extra pounds. The tips below may help:

  • Start a weight-loss program with the help of your health care provider.
  • Ask your friends and family for support.
  • Join a weight-loss group.

Learn ways to cope

Most people with long-term conditions find it a challenge to deal with the emotions that often go along with their conditions. With rheumatoid arthritis, there is also pain. 

  • Work with your health care provider on ways to lessen pain. Medications, use of heat and cold, and other methods are available.
  • Learn to relax. Although it may not be easy, it does help lessen stress, anxiety, and pain. Simple deep-breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga are examples of relaxation techniques.
  • Depression is common with long-term conditions. If you feel depressed, make sure you talk with your health care provider. Again, treatments, like medication and counseling, are available.

Try to make your day easier

There are things you can do every day to protect your joints:

  • Learn to balance rest with activity. Even on days when you have few symptoms, rest is still important.
  • Ask friends and family members for help. Help with simple things can make a big difference for you. For example, you might ask someone to change a light bulb, or take out your weekly garbage.

Use assistive devices, which are special tools that reduce strain and protect joints. For example:

  • Long-handled reachers or grabbers for reaching high and low
  • Jar-openers, two-handled cups, and button threader - all of these devices help to protect your fingers, hands, and wrists
  • Large grips for pencils, pens, kitchen and garden tools

Use mobility and other aids

People with arthritis and other problems affecting the joints often use mobility aids, to help with walking. For example they may use canes or walkers. They may also use splints or braces to support joints. Talk with your health care provider or therapist about these aids. For instance, you might benefit from:

  • Use a cane to ease knee or hip pain and help prevent falls
  • Splints for your wrists or other joints
  • A brace to support a weak knee joint
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Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Symptoms and Screenings for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Causes and Preventions for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Education and Resources for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Support groups for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Learn More about Rheumatoid Arthritis

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