Rheumatoid Arthritis



RA happens when the immune system attacks healthy tissue. It is not clear what makes this happen.

Some causes may be:

  • A specific genetic defect
  • Problems with the immune system may stop immune cells from recognizing the body’s own tissues
  • Infection with specific viruses or bacteria may start an abnormal immune response
  • Chemical or hormonal imbalances in the body

Risk Factors

RA is more common in women. It often starts in people who are between 30 to 60 years of age.

Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Having other family members with RA
  • Heavy or long-term smoking



Pain and swelling usually happens in smaller joints, such as the hands, wrists, and feet. It also affects joints on the same side of the body.

Other problems may be:

  • Pain, stiffness, and swelling in the morning and after inactivity that lasts more than 30 minutes
  • Red, warm joints
  • Deformed, misshapen joints
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Small lumps under the skin


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. There are many diseases that have symptoms that are similar to RA. Tests will be done to rule out other health problems.

Blood tests may be done to look for inflammation and blood proteins linked to RA.

Pictures may be taken to look for tissue swelling and changes in bone. This can be done with:

  • X-rays
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI scan

Samples may be taken of fluid and tissues to look for signs of RA. This can be done with:

  • Arthrocentesis—the removal and testing of fluid from a joint
  • Synovial biopsy—the removal and testing of a piece of the lining of a joint



There is no cure for RA. The goal is to manage the disease by slowing damage, easing pain, and improving movement. Choices are:


Medicine can help to stop or slow inflammation that causes damage to the joints. It may change over time and include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and COX-2 inhibitors
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that suppress inflammation caused by immune system
  • Corticosteroids (less common)

Joint Movement and Flexibility

Physical and occupational therapy can help to keep joints flexible. Tools and devices may also be used to ease stress on weak or sore joints. Regular exercise may also be helpful.


Surgery may be needed if there is severe damage or loss of function. It may include repair of a tendon or joint replacement.


There are no guidelines to prevent RA.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.