RA is caused by a problem with the immune system. It begins to attack healthy tissue. It is not clear what makes this happen. It is most likely a combination of factors in a person's genes and environment. Some causes may be:
- Genes—people with RA often have a specific genetic defect
- Defects in the immune system—may stop the 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
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 or nodules under the skin
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. 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:
- MRI scan
Samples may be taken of fluid and tissues to look for signs of RA. This can be done with:
- Arthrocentesis—fluid from the joint
- Synovial biopsy—a piece of the lining of the joint
There is no cure for RA. The goal of treatment is to slow damage, ease pain, and improve movement. Steps may include:
Medicine can help to stop or slow inflammation that causes damage to the joints. Medicine may change over time and include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and COX-2 inhibitors
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic 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. They may also be able to provide tools or devices to ease stress on very 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.
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.
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