Rheumatoid Arthritis: Fast Facts

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks joints.
  • People usually begin to develop RA between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • About 2.1 million Americans have RA (about 0.5 to 1 percent of the U.S. adult population), according to the National Institutes of Health. More than 70 percent of them are women.
  • The cause of this autoimmune disease is unknown.
  • RA begins when immune system cells attack normal body cells in the joints. This causes inflammation, pain and damage in the joints, frequently in the same joint on both sides of the body.
  • The first symptoms of RA are often pain, swelling or stiffness in a few joints.
  • Depending on the individual, these symptoms may stay the same for many years or progress to include other joints and areas of your body, such as the heart. Severe cases of RA can cause tendons and bones in the joints to become deformed and difficult, if not impossible, to use.
  • Many people with RA experience periods of severe inflammation called flare-ups, followed by remission for long periods of time. It is also possible, though less likely, that you may experience one flare-up followed by remission.
  • There is no definitive test for RA. However, a physician may use blood tests, a physical examination and a synovial fluid analysis to permit a diagnosis.
  • Rheumatologists use four separate classes to classify your RA status, with each based on your ability to function. Class I indicates that you are completely able to perform usual activities of daily living. Class II means you are able to perform usual self-care and work activities but are limited in other activities, such as sports. Class III: able to perform self-care activities but limited in work and other activities. Class IV: limited in your ability to perform usual self-care, work and other activities.
  • There is no known cure for RA. Treatment primarily focuses on relieving pain and other symptoms, maximizing function and slowing the progression of the disease.
  • Your RA will most likely be treated with basic pain relievers such as acetaminophen or anti-inflammatory drugs. Other drugs modify the disease's progress or work on parts of the immune system that malfunction to trigger RA.
  • The course of RA is different for each patient, and different drug combinations may provide relief for individuals.
  • No drugs can reverse damage inflicted on the joints, but there are drugs that can stop the progression of the disease. Some surgical procedures can remove parts of damaged joints or even replace an entire joint.
  • There is a great deal of research being conducted about the causes of RA and possible ways to cure it.

Reviewed by Vikas Garg, M.D., MSA

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