Affecting more than two million people, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to turn on itself, attacking tissue that normally helps protect and preserve joint function. It most commonly begins in the 30s and 40s and the number of women affected out number men by three to one.
During an RA "attack" -- known as a flare -- the immune system sends out a barrage of white blood cells to the affected joint, which in turn causes inflammation in the area. It is this inflammation that is responsible for the symptoms of RA including joint swelling and pain.
Doctors now believe that within the first year, the inflammation caused by RA can cause serious damage to cartilage (the protective tissue that is a key component of joints), thus making a strong case for early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.
In some instances, RA can progress to produce symptoms all over the body. Eventually it can weaken the bones and muscles surrounding the affected joints, and it can also damage the eyes, the salivary glands, and the heart and lungs.
With treatment, however, many complications of RA can be avoided.
Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as "old age arthritis" or "wear and tear arthritis" is a natural degeneration of the cartilage between joints that occurs with aging. The degeneration can be worsened by overuse or injury, but its impact is limited to the affected joints.