Features of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and subsequent loss of function in the joints. It has several special features that make it different from other kinds of arthritis (see information box below). For example, rheumatoid arthritis generally occurs in a symmetrical pattern. This means that if one knee or hand is involved, the other one is also. The disease often affects the wrist joints and the finger joints closest to the hand. It can also affect other parts of the body besides the joints (see illustrations on next page). In addition, people with the disease may have fatigue, occasional fever and a general sense of malaise.

Another feature of rheumatoid arthritis is that it varies a lot from person to person. For some people, it lasts only a few months or a year or two and goes away without causing any noticeable damage. Other people have mild or moderate disease, with periods of worsening symptoms, called flares, and periods in which they feel better, called remissions. Still others have severe disease that is active most of the time, lasts for many years, and leads to serious joint damage and disability.

Although rheumatoid arthritis can have serious effects on a person’s life and well-being, current treatment strategies, including pain relief and other medications, a balance between rest and exercise, and patient education and support programs allow most people with RA to lead active and productive lives. In recent years, research has led to a new understanding of rheumatoid arthritis and has increased the likelihood that, in time, researchers can find ways to greatly reduce the impact of this disease.

Features of Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints.
  • Symmetrical pattern. For example, if one knee is affected, the other one is also.
  • Joint inflammation often affecting the wrist and finger joints closest to the hand; other affected joints can include those of the neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and feet.
  • Fatigue, occasional fever, a general sense of not feeling well (malaise).
  • Pain and stiffness lasting for more than 30 minutes in the morning or after a long rest.
  • Symptoms that can last for many years.
  • Symptoms in other parts of the body besides the joints.
  • Variability of symptoms among people with the disease.

How Rheumatoid Arthritis Develops and Progresses

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