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Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis -- the Basics

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a relatively common disorder affecting 1.3 million Americans. It usually begins between age 20 and 50, and women are affected three times as frequently as men. 

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterized by inflammation and pain in the hands -- especially in the joints of the fingers, as well as in the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and feet. RA can affect almost any joint in the body, except the lower back. The duration and intensity of pain vary from person to person.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis Skin Problems

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is primarily a disease of the joints. But the disease and many of the medications used to treat it can also affect the skin, causing problems as diverse as sun sensitivity, rash, and firm lumps of tissue called nodules.

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RA can also cause damage to other parts of the body, including the lungs, eyes, and nerves. General fatigue and difficulty sleeping are also common. The discomfort of rheumatoid arthritis can develop over weeks or months and tends to be most severe on awakening. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis are stiff in the morning and after sitting for prolonged periods.

Rheumatoid arthritis may eventually cause the hands and feet to become misshapen as muscles weaken and tendons are damaged and slip from their normal positions. Some of this deformity can be prevented with appropriate treatment.

While there is no complete cure, treatment begun at the onset of the disorder relieves symptoms in most people. With early treatment, the likelihood of permanent disability is reduced in all but 5% to 10% of sufferers.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not fully understood, though most research shows that it is an autoimmune disorder -- meaning that the body's immune system is attacking one or more areas of the body. Some people have a genetic or inherited factor that makes them more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 08, 2014

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