Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that can cause chronic inflammation of the joints and other areas of the body.
- Rheumatoid arthritis can affect people of all ages. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known.
- Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and signs include fatigue, joint pain, swollen joints, fever, loss of joint function, as well as joint stiffness, redness, warmth, tenderness, and deformity.
- Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease characterized by periods of disease flares and remissions.
- In rheumatoid arthritis, multiple joints are usually, but not always, affected in a symmetrical pattern.
- Chronic inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent joint destruction and deformity.
- Damage to joints can occur early and does not always correlate with the severity of RA symptoms.
- Early RA treatment results in better outcomes.
What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints. Autoimmune diseases are illnesses that occur when the body’s tissues are mistakenly attacked by their own immune system. The immune system contains a complex organization of cells and antibodies designed normally to “seek and destroy” invaders of the body, particularly infections. Patients with autoimmune diseases have antibodies and immune cells in their blood that target their own body tissues, where they can be associated with inflammation. While inflammation of the tissue around the joints and inflammatory arthritis are characteristic features of rheumatoid arthritis, the disease can also cause inflammation and injury in other organs in the body. Because it can affect multiple other organs of the body, rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systemic illness and is sometimes called rheumatoid disease. Rheumatoid arthritis that begins in people under 16 years of age is referred to as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (formerly juvenile rheumatoid arthritis).
Picture of a joint with rheumatoid arthritis
While rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic illness, meaning it can last for years, patients may experience long periods without symptoms. However, rheumatoid arthritis is typically a progressive illness that has the potential to cause significant joint destruction and functional disability.
A joint is where two bones meet to allow movement of body parts. Arthritis means joint inflammation. The joint inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis causes swelling, pain, stiffness, and redness in the joints. The inflammation of rheumatoid disease can also occur in tissues around the joints, such as the tendons, ligaments, and muscles.
In some people with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation leads to the destruction of the cartilage, bone, and ligaments, causing deformity of the joints. Damage to the joints can occur early in the disease and be progressive. Moreover, studies have shown that the progressive damage to the joints does not necessarily correlate with the degree of pain, stiffness, or swelling present in the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common rheumatic disease. The disease is three times more common in women as in men. It afflicts people of all races equally. The disease can begin at any age and even affects children (juvenile idiopathic arthritis), but it most often starts after 40 years of age and before 60 years of age. Though uncommon, in some families, multiple members can be affected, suggesting a genetic basis for the disorder.
What are causes and risk factors of rheumatoid arthritis?
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. Even though infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi have long been suspected, none has been proven as the cause. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is a very active area of worldwide research. It is believed that the tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis may be genetically inherited (hereditary). Certain genes have been identified that increase the risk for rheumatoid arthritis. It is also suspected that certain infections or factors in the environment might trigger the activation of the immune system in susceptible individuals. This misdirected immune system then attacks the body’s own tissues. This leads to inflammation in the joints and sometimes in various organs of the body, such as the lungs or eyes.
It is not known what triggers the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Regardless of the exact trigger, the result is an immune system that is geared up to promote inflammation in the joints and occasionally other tissues of the body. Immune cells, called lymphocytes, are activated and chemical messengers (cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor/TNF, interleukin-1/IL-1, and interleukin-6/IL-6) are expressed in the inflamed areas.
Environmental factors also seem to play some role in causing rheumatoid arthritis. For example, scientists have reported that smoking tobacco, exposure to silica mineral, and chronic periodontal disease all increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
What are rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and signs?
RA symptoms come and go, depending on the degree of tissue inflammation. When body tissues are inflamed, the disease is active. When tissue inflammation subsides, the disease is inactive (in remission). Remissions can occur spontaneously or with treatment and can last weeks, months, or years. During remissions, symptoms of the disease disappear, and people generally feel well. When the disease becomes active again (relapse), symptoms return. The return of disease activity and symptoms is called a flare. The course of rheumatoid arthritis varies among affected individuals, and periods of flares and remissions are typical.
When the disease is active, RA symptoms can include fatigue, loss of energy, lack of appetite, low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, and stiffness. Muscle and joint stiffness are usually most notable in the morning and after periods of inactivity. This is referred to as morning stiffness and post-sedentary stiffness. Arthritis is common during disease flares. Also during flares, joints frequently become warm, red, swollen, painful, and tender. This occurs because the lining tissue of the joint (synovium) becomes inflamed, resulting in the production of excessive joint fluid (synovial fluid). The synovium also thickens with inflammation (synovitis).
Rheumatoid arthritis usually inflames multiple joints and affects both sides of the body. In its most common form, therefore, it is referred to as a symmetric polyarthritis. Early symptoms may be subtle. The small joints of both the hands and wrists are often involved. Early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can be pain and prolonged stiffness of joints, particularly in the morning. Symptoms in the hands with rheumatoid arthritis include difficulty with simple tasks of daily living, such as turning door knobs and opening jars. The small joints of the feet are also commonly involved, which can lead to painful walking, especially in the morning after arising from bed. Occasionally, only one joint is inflamed. When only one joint is involved, the arthritis can mimic the joint inflammation caused by other forms of arthritis, such as gout or joint infection. Chronic inflammation can cause damage to body tissues, including cartilage and bone. This leads to a loss of cartilage and erosion and weakness of the bones as well as the muscles, resulting in joint deformity, destruction, and loss of function. Rarely, rheumatoid arthritis can even affect the joint that is responsible for the tightening of our vocal cords to change the tone of our voice, the cricoarytenoid joint. When this joint is inflamed, it can cause hoarseness of the voice. Symptoms in children with rheumatoid arthritis include limping, irritability, crying, and poor appetite.
What are complications of rheumatoid disease?
Since rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, its inflammation can affect organs and areas of the body other than the joints. Inflammation of the glands of the eyes and mouth can cause dryness of these areas and is referred to as Sjögren’s syndrome. Dryness of the eyes can lead to corneal abrasion. Inflammation of the white parts of the eyes (the sclerae) is referred to asscleritis and can be very dangerous to the eye. Rheumatoid inflammation of the lung lining (pleuritis) causes chest pain with deep breathing, shortness of breath, or coughing. The lung tissue itself can also become inflamed and scarred, and sometimes nodules of inflammation (rheumatoid nodules) develop within the lungs. Inflammation of the tissue (pericardium) surrounding the heart, called pericarditis, can cause a chest pain that typically changes in intensity when lying down or leaning forward. Rheumatoid arthritis is associated with an increased risk for heart attack. Rheumatoid disease can reduce the number of red blood cells (anemia) and white blood cells. Decreased white cells can be associated with an enlarged spleen(referred to as Felty’s syndrome) and can increase the risk of infections. The risk of lymph gland cancer (lymphoma) is higher in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, especially in those with sustained active joint inflammation. Firm lumps or firm bumps under the skin (subcutaneous nodules called rheumatoid nodules) can occur around the elbows and fingers where there is frequent pressure. Even though these nodules usually do not cause symptoms, occasionally they can become infected. Nerves can become pinched in the wrists to cause carpal tunnel syndrome. A rare, serious complication, usually with longstanding rheumatoid disease, is blood vessel inflammation (vasculitis). Vasculitis can impair blood supply to tissues and lead to tissue death (necrosis). This is most often initially visible as tiny black areas around the nail beds or as leg ulcers.