What is RA?*
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with RA — or have a loved one who has— you’re likely to have a host of questions, starting with, “What is RA?”. Finding out more can help you better cope with the disease, and being as informed as possible can also help as you talk to your doctor about possible treatment options. Remember that your doctor is always the best source of information about RA symptoms and treatment.
Nearly 2 million Americans are living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and the disease affects women 2 to 3 times more often than men. RA starts in the immune system and is part of a group of diseases called autoimmune diseases, which occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies healthy body tissues as foreign and destroys them.
In the case of RA, joints — and especially the smaller ones in the hands and feet — are primarily affected, but the disease can also have an impact on many other parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. When the lining of the joints — also referred to as the synovial membrane — becomes inflamed, resulting in pain, swelling, and redness in affected joints, cartilage and bone can wear away, increasing pain in affected joints and eventually leading to disability.
For some, loss of joint or bone material develops gradually over several years, whereas others may progress rapidly. Some patients may have severe inflammation with little or no loss of joint or bone material; others may have a loss of bone or joint material with only limited inflammation visible through clinical exam. Because we all have unique cells that compose our immune systems, RA affects people in different ways.
*Includes excerpts from “A new era for rheumatoid arthritis.” Women. www.awomanshealth.com. Fall 2010; 81-83.
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What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
As RA progresses, various symptoms associated with inflammation of the joints may be experienced. The most common physical symptoms of RA include:
–Swelling, redness, and feeling of warmth in your joints
–Joint pain and tenderness
–Loss of joint function
As RA advances, other symptoms may be noticed, such as joint areas that look deformed and limited or loss of movement in joints. Your doctor will assess the extent of damage that RA has caused to your joints.
RA is also distinguished from other types of arthritis by the pattern in which it affects certain joints. For example, RA often affects the wrist and many joints in the hand, but usually not the joints closest to the fingertips. RA can also affect the elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, hips, knees, ankles, and feet, but the spine is not usually affected in RA patients. However, RA can also cause inflammation of the lining of internal organs. The level of disease activity can wax and wane over time.