A guide to rheumatoid arthritis


What is rheumatoid arthritis?


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, debilitating autoimmune disease involving inflammation and progressive destruction of the joints and a range of systemic manifestations, all of which contribute to functional disability, reduced quality of life and overall disease burden.


What causes rheumatoid arthritis?


Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease – it develops because of a dysregulation of the immune system. The body’s immune system normally fights infection. However, when you have RA, your immune system instead attacks the healthy tissue in your joints. This causes the synovium – the thin sheet that covers your joints – to become inflamed.

Over time, this inflammation can damage the bones and the tissues that surround the joints, including cartilage, ligaments and tendons. It can lead to permanent damage if it is not treated.

It is not known exactly what triggers RA. However, researchers are starting to understand several mechanisms underlying the development of the disease, which is attributed to a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors, like smoking.


What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?


The inflammation can lead to pain, stiffness and swelling in joints. The hands and feet are most commonly affected, but larger joints like knees and hips can also be affected.

The pain, swelling and deformity in the joints can make it very difficult to stay active and to do basic day-to-day tasks. The pain and stiffness can be worse first thing in the morning or after periods of inactivity.

Other symptoms may include fatigue (up to 80% of rheumatoid arthritis patients), poor sleep and depression. These can all combine to affect your overall quality of life.

However, it’s important to remember that RA affects people differently. The speed at which it progresses can also vary.


Who gets rheumatoid arthritis?


It is estimated that RA affects up to 1% of the world’s population, making it the most common type of arthritis. RA is twice as common in women as in men.

Although RA can occur at any age, it usually develops between the ages of 30 and 60, so it can have a big impact on the most active years of your adult life. One third of people diagnosed with RA stopped working after five years and two thirds missed workdays over a period of one year due to pain and disability. The impact of RA on everyday life makes it especially important to ensure it is properly treated and well managed.


How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?


Between 20% and 40% of RA patients who received the most common class of treatments have an inadequate response. However, research into new forms of treatment is ongoing to help make life with RA easier. Since the 1980’s, RA treatments have evolved from pain relief options to disease modifying therapies.

Today, lifelong treatments aim to improve the quality of life for people with RA, by reducing signs and symptoms and slow down or prevent the progression of joint damage. Other forms of support, such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy, may be useful as well.



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