What is rheumatoid arthritis?

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OA is different than rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the synovial membrane (a soft tissue that protects joints in the body) and that can lead to bone loss. It is a systemic disease that not only makes joints stiff and painful, but can also affect other parts of your body, such as internal organs.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic inflammation of the joints. Autoimmune diseases are illnesses that occur when the body’s tissues are mistakenly attacked by their own immune system. The immune system contains a complex organization of cells and antibodies designed normally to “seek and destroy” invaders of the body, particularly infections. Patients with autoimmune diseases have antibodies and immune cells in their blood that target their own body tissues, where they can be associated with inflammation. While inflammation of the tissue around the joints and inflammatory arthritis are characteristic features of rheumatoid arthritis, the disease can also cause inflammation and injury in other organs in the body. Because it can affect multiple other organs of the body, rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systemic illness and is sometimes called rheumatoid disease.

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Rheumatoid arthritis is typically a progressive illness that has the potential to cause significant joint destruction and functional disability but by noting symptoms such as joint stiffness and seeking early treatment, you can feel better, slow or stop progression of the disease, and minimize joint damage. This allows you to live a more active, full life.

While rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic illness, meaning it can last for years, patients may experience long periods without symptoms.

RA can affect any joint on either side of the body, but most commonly occurs in the small joints of the hands, wrists, and feet. A joint affected by RA also may become painful, but won’t always be red or swollen.

RA pain varies in quality and intensity. Sometimes it’s mild, and sometimes it’s excruciating.

The medical community doesn’t yet know what causes RA. However, scientists think the disease might be genetic as certain genes have been identified that increase the risk for RA; or caused by some trigger in the environment, like a virus, or both. Even though infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi have long been suspected, none has been proven as the cause.

RA can be treated, but not cured.

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