Rheumatoid Arthritis Facts

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that causes inflammation in the joints, most commonly in the hands, wrists, feet, and ankles.

The condition is characterized by painful and stiff joints on both sides of the body that may become enlarged and deformed. The inflammation can become so severe that the function and appearance of the hands and other parts of the body can become affected. In the hands, rheumatoid arthritis may cause deformities in the joints of the fingers, making it difficult to move the fingers. Lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, may form over small joints in the hands and the wrist.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men. The disease most often occurs between the ages of 30 and 50. Its exact cause isn't known.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. That means the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues. The response of the body causes inflammation in and around the joints. The condition may destroy the skeletal system. Rheumatoid arthritis also may damage other organs, such as the heart and lungs. Researchers believe certain factors, including heredity, may contribute to the onset of the disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically causes inflammation symmetrically in the body. That means the same joints are affected on both sides of the body. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may begin suddenly or gradually. They may resemble other medical conditions or problems, so a diagnosis by your doctor is important.

Diagnosis and Procedures

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis may be hard in the early stages, because symptoms may be very subtle. In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, your doctor may use the following procedures to help diagnose it:

  • X-ray: a diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Joint aspiration: a procedures that excludes infection or gout as possible causes.

  • Biopsy: a procedure in which tissue samples are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.

  • Blood tests: to detect certain antibodies, called rheumatoid factor, and other indicators for rheumatoid arthritis.


It's important to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis early to prevent severe joint damage and impairment. Treatment can range from simple therapies, such as diet and rest, to more aggressive therapies, including medications and surgery. Close follow-up with your doctor is required in managing the disease.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Jenkins, Lee] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-06-26T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.