Searching for the Cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is one of several “autoimmune” diseases (“auto” means self), so-called because a person’s immune system attacks his or her own body tissues. Scientists still do not know exactly what causes this to happen, but research over the last few years has begun to unravel the factors involved.

Genetic (inherited) factors: Scientists have found that certain genes that play a role in the immune system are associated with a tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, some people with rheumatoid arthritis do not have these particular genes, and other people have these genes but never develop the disease. This suggests that a person’s genetic makeup is an important part of the story but not the whole answer. It is clear, however, that more than one gene is involved in determining whether a person develops rheumatoid arthritis and, if so, how severe the disease will become.

Environmental factors: Many scientists think that something must occur to trigger the disease process in people whose genetic makeup makes them susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis. An infectious agent such as a virus or bacterium appears likely, but the exact agent is not yet known. Note, however, that rheumatoid arthritis is not contagious: A person cannot “catch” it from someone else.

Other factors: Some scientists also think that a variety of hormonal factors may be involved. These hormones, or possibly deficiencies or changes in certain hormones, may promote the development of rheumatoid arthritis in a genetically susceptible person who has been exposed to a triggering agent from the environment.

Even though all the answers aren’t known, one thing is certain: Rheumatoid arthritis develops as a result of an interaction of many factors. Much research is going on now to understand these factors and how they work together (see the Current Research section).

Diagnosing and Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis

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