There are many forms of arthritis, however, one of the most painful and disabling forms is called rheumatoid arthritis.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

According to the American College of Rheumatology,  rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis, affecting more than 1.3 million Americans. Of these, about 75 percent are women.

RA is a chronic (long-term) disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling and limited motion and function of many joints. While RA can affect any joint, the small joints in the hands and feet tend to be involved most often. Inflammation sometimes can affect organs as well, for instance, the eyes or lungs.

The stiffness seen in active RA is most often worst in the morning. It may last one to two hours (or even the whole day). Stiffness for a long time in the morning is a clue that you may have RA, since few other arthritic diseases behave this way.

RA, unlike osteoarthritis (OA) can effect multiple joints on both sides of the body.  Typically, OA is limited to more specific joints and caused from overuse or injury to that particular joint(s).

The Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA is an autoimmune disease. This means that certain cells of the immune system do not work properly and start attacking healthy tissues — the joints in RA. The cause of RA is not known. However, new research is giving us a better idea of what makes the immune system attack the body and create inflammation. In RA, the focus of the inflammation is in the synovium, the tissue that lines the joint. Immune cells release inflammation-causing chemicals. These chemicals can damage cartilage (the tissue that cushions between joints) and bone. Other things likely play a role in RA as well. For instance, genes that affect the immune system may make some people more prone to getting RA.

The Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA can be difficult to initially diagnose because it provides many hidden or subtle symptoms.  Often the diagnosis is made when the following are found:

  • Warmth, swelling and pain in the joints
  • Anemia (a low red blood cell count)
  • Rheumatoid factor (an antibody, or blood protein, found in about 80 percent of patients with RA in time, but in as few as 30 percent at the start of arthritis)
  • Antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides (pieces of proteins), or anti-CCP for short (found in 60–70 percent of patients with RA)
  • Elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (a blood test that, in most patients with RA, confirms the amount of inflammation in the joints)

If your doctor believes that you do have RA, you should consult with a Rheumatologist, a specialist who can correctly diagnose rheumatoid arthritis.  Your Rheumatologist can work with you to provide the best treatment options for you.

Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Research shows that people with RA, mainly those whose disease is not well controlled, have a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Talk with your doctor about these risks and ways to lower them.

It is important to be physically active most of the time, but to sometimes scale back activities when the disease flares. In general, rest is helpful when a joint is inflamed, or when you feel tired. At these times, do gentle range-of-motion exercises, such as stretching. This will keep the joint flexible.

When you feel better, do low-impact aerobic exercises, such as walking, and exercises to boost muscle strength. This will improve your overall health and reduce pressure on your joints. A physical or occupational therapist can help you find which types of activities are best for you, and at what level or pace you should do them.

For further information, visit the American College of Rheumatology