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Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis -- the Basics

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder. That means the immune system attacks one or more areas of the body.

The condition is known for inflammation and pain, especially in the hands, the joints of fingers, and in the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and feet.

RA can damage other parts of the body, too, including the lungs, eyes, and nerves. It can also lead to fatigue and sleep problems. Symptoms can develop over weeks or months, and they tend to be most severe when you wake up. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis are stiff in the morning and after sitting for a long time.

Although there’s no cure, treatments can stop the damage and ease symptoms in most people.


Doctors don’t know exactly what causes RA. Some people have a genetic trait that makes them more likely to get the condition.

RA affects 1.3 million Americans. It usually begins between ages 20 and 50. It’s three times more common among women than men, but scientists don’t know why that is.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 27, 2015

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