This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on 4 July 2023.
What is it?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term condition that causes swelling, stiffness, pain, and loss of function in the joints. RA most commonly affects the hand and wrists, but can also affect the elbows, neck, shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. Other symptoms of RA include fatigue, fever, anaemia and a sense of not feeling well (malaise). RA also increases the risk of thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), particularly in those taking corticosteroid drugs such as prednisone. RA is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system (which fights infections) attacks the cells lining the joints, causing inflammation. The disease can affect other body organs as well, causing dry eyes and mouth, which are symptoms of a closely related autoimmune disease called Sjögren syndrome.

Rheumatoid arthritis usually develops slowly between the ages of 20 and 45. More than 75% of patients are women. RA is different from osteoarthritis, in which joint tissues wear down from repetitive use or age. RA usually affects joints in a symmetrical way. For example, if one knee is affected, the other knee is also likely to be affected. The disease may be partly inherited through genes, but other, non-genetic factors are likely to be involved, including some kind of a trigger, such as an infection; the disease is not contagious, however. Smoking has also been shown to increase the risk of developing RA and may worsen symptoms.

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About Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Tests

    Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed from a patient’s signs and symptoms. The diagnosis can be supported with a blood test for an antibody known as rheumatoid factor (RF). The RF test looks for the presence of RF antibodies in the blood and is positive in about 80% of people with RA. However, this test is also positive in about 5% of people without the disease. Another antibody test that looks for cyclic citrullinated peptide (CCP) antibodies has more recently become available and can help doctors make a diagnosis in difficult cases.

    Other common tests to support a diagnosis of RA and to monitor treatment for it include:   

  • Treatments

    Several different types of medication are used to treat RA, including pain relievers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, immunosuppressants, and corticosteroids (also known as glucocorticoids). People with RA can also make beneficial lifestyle changes that include taking regular physical exercise, eating healthily, resting, avoiding stress, and taking special care of their joints by using devices specifically designed to help those with RA perform daily tasks. Surgery is occasionally used for some patients with severe joint involvement.