Rheumatoid Arthritis FAQs

What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes swelling, stiffness, pain, and loss of function in the joints. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is the breakdown of cartilage in the joints that is followed by inflammation of the lining in the joint and usually causes joint pain and limited movement of the affected joint.

What causes RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis is often caused by environmental factors, genetic factors, or a combination of the two. These factors trigger an abnormal autoimmune response. Certain genes or defects in the immune system can cause chronic inflammation and are associated with the onset of RA. In addition, certain bacteria or viruses may increase a person’s susceptibility to RA.

What increases the risk for RA?

People with a genetic predisposition, especially females, who are heavy or long-term smokers, are at an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

What are the symptoms of RA?

At the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms may include joint pain or stiffness that is symmetrical, meaning it affects the same joint on both sides of the body, is prominent in the morning, and lasts for at least half an hour. In addition, joints may be deformed, red, warm, or swollen. Mild fever, tiredness, and loss of appetite may also accompany early RA. As it progresses, RA can cause complications in other parts of the body including the heart and lungs.

How is RA diagnosed?

RA is characterized by at least one swollen or tender joint or a history of a swollen joint. In diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis, a doctor will check the symptoms and medical history of a patient as well as order blood tests or imaging tests such as x-rays to test for an autoimmune disease and rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms. Once diagnosed, treatment should begin right away to maximize results, lower the chance of joint damage, and slow the progression of the disease.

What treatments besides medications may be used for RA?

As of now, there is no cure for RA. Current treatment options aim to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, slow down joint damage, and improve joint function. Besides medication, a balance between rest and exercise is beneficial in relieving joint inflammation and pain. Mild strength training or physical therapy can also help maintain muscle strength and flexibility as well as preserve joint mobility. Weight control, a healthy diet, including foods that reduce and fight inflammation, stress reduction, and aerobic activities, such as walking or swimming, may also help treat RA. In severe cases, surgery for joint replacement and tendon reconstruction might be advised.