Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up
Font Size

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.

Recommended Related to Rheumatoid Arthritis

Family Planning and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Although anyone can get rheumatoid arthritis, women with RA outnumber men by about three to one. Many women with rheumatoid arthritis are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, just when marriage and family start to take life's center stage. With pain, fatigue, and medication side effects to consider, there's no question rheumatoid arthritis makes family planning more complicated. But RA doesn't have to put your dreams of having a family out of reach. If you're thinking about starting a family while...

Read the Family Planning and Rheumatoid Arthritis article > >

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

Today on WebMD

rubbing hands
Avoid these 6 common mistakes.
woman roasting vegetables in oven
Four that fight inflammation.
 
mature woman threading needle
How much do you know about these RA myths and facts?
Patients who take the product would get no
This may lead to worsening symptoms.
 
Lucille Ball
Slideshow
Hand bones X-ray
Article
 
prescription pills
Article
Woman massaging her neck
Quiz
 
woman roasting vegetables in oven
Slideshow
Woman rubbing shoulder
Slideshow
 
Working out with light weights
Video
arthritis
Article