Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which your body’s immune system – which protects your health by attacking foreign substances like bacteria and viruses – mistakenly attacks your joints. The abnormal immune response causes inflammation that can damage joints and organs, such as the heart. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment is the key to preventing joint destruction and organ damage.
About 1.5 million people in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Nearly three times as many women have the disease as men. In women, RA most commonly begins between ages 30 and 60. In men, it often occurs later in life.
The severity of the disease can vary from person to person. Symptoms can change from day to day. Sudden increases in symptoms and illness are called flares. A flare can last for days or months. Key rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are pain, fatigue and warm, swollen, reddish joints. Long periods of joint stiffness in the morning are common. Inflammation in the small joints of the wrist and hand is typical. If a joint on one side of the body is affected, the same one on the other side is usually affected, too.
There is no cure for RA, but there are a number of medications available to help ease symptoms, reduce inflammation, and slow the progression of the disease. No one drug works for everyone but many people find treatments that are very effective. The goal of treatment is remission, a state when inflammation is gone or is very low. A doctor, likely a rheumatologist – a specialty doctor who treats people with arthritis – should monitor your levels of disease activity, or inflammation, on a regular basis through exams and blood tests that reveal how well treatment is working. The doctor may add or change your medications or adjust the dosage after a few months, if the disease is still active.
Self-management is an important part of rheumatoid arthritis care. Staying physically active is the key to keeping joints flexible. Too little movement can lead to joint stiffness. Strong muscles protect joints. Overall fitness improves health in many ways. Managing your weight, eating a nutritious diet and getting a good balance of rest and activity each day are important, too.