Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) occurs when the immune system causes the body to attack the joint’s lining. This is categorized as autoimmune and inflammatory disease, which means the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body. RA affects the joints and can occur in multiple joints, such as in the hands, writs, and knees, at the same time. Inflammation of the joint lining causes pain and damage to the joint tissue. If left untreated, tissue damage can result in long-lasting or chronic pain, lack of balance, or deformity.
Signs and symptoms of RA can fluctuate between worse periods, or flares, and better periods, known as remission. There is a wide range of symptoms, which include any of the following:
- Pain, tenderness, and/or swelling in multiple joints
- Joint stiffness in the morning
- Fatigue, or tiredness
- Weight loss
- Same symptoms on both sides of the body, such as in both hands, or both knees
- Lumps called rheumatoid nodules.
There are numerous genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to a person’s risk for developing RA. Although RA can manifest at any age, the likelihood increases with age and is highest among adults in their sixties. Genetics and inherited traits can also be a contributing factor. People who are born with the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class II genotypes are more at risk to develop RA, especially when exposed to environmental factors such as smoking or becoming obese. Studies show that RA typically develops two-to-three times higher in women than in men.
It is important to diagnose RA early, within 6 months of the onset of symptoms, in order to begin treatment and slow or stop the progression of the disease. Rheumatologists are expertly trained to properly assess and treat patients for RA, since the symptoms are often similar or overlapping with other inflammatory diseases.