Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It causes joint problems, such as:
- loss of function
According to Mayo Clinic, joint damage from RA is usually symmetrical. If a joint is affected on one side of the body, the same joint on the other side will probably be affected as well. This is one way that doctors distinguish RA from other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis (OA).
What is an autoimmune disease?
The immune system normally identifies and destroys foreign substances in the body, such as viruses and bacteria. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. It attacks healthy cells and organs instead of pathogens.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in RA, the immune system attacks the synovium. This is the membrane that lines the joints. When the synovium is attacked, it becomes swollen and damaged. Eventually, the joint cartilage may start to erode. This leads to destruction of the joint, deformity, and loss of function.
RA can also affect other organs, including the:
- blood vessels
How common is rheumatoid arthritis?
According to the CDC, approximately 1.5 million Americans have RA. It’s two to three times more common in women than in men. Up to 4 percent of American women will eventually be diagnosed with RA.
RA is most often diagnosed in people over the age of 40. However, it can also occur in younger adults and in children. It can present as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The largest group of RA sufferers is women over 55.
What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?
Both RA and osteoarthritis (OA) fall under the general category of arthritis, but the two conditions are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. As with RA, people with OA can experience painful and stiff joints that can make moving around difficult. Joint swelling may occur after extended activity, but OA doesn’t cause any significant inflammatory reaction which typically results in redness of the affected joints.
However, unlike RA, OA is not an autoimmune disease. It’s more of a degenerative disease, which is related to the natural “wear and tear” of the joints. For this reason, OA is most often seen in older adults. On the other hand, RA can sometimes develop in adults under the age of 40. OA is also far more common than RA. The CDC estimates that 26.9 million people in the United States are affected.
Still, OA is not just seen in older adults. The joint condition can sometimes be seen in younger adults who overuse a particular joint (such as tennis players and other athletes), or in those who have experienced a severe injury. Obesity can increase the risk of OA, especially in the hips and knees. Genes may also play a role in your individual risk for OA.
Since RA is an autoimmune disease, there is no way to prevent the condition. Instead, the focus is on treating joint flare-ups and identifying signs and symptoms in other organs (eyes, lungs, heart, blood vessels, mouth, skin) to maintain a better quality of life. Once you have OA, you can’t necessarily prevent the symptoms, either. However, unlike RA, you can take steps to help prevent OA by losing excess weight and preventing injuries.
What is the long-term outlook of rheumatoid arthritis?
RA is a chronic disease. If you have RA, you will have it for the rest of your life. The course of the disease varies from person to person. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Most people with RA do not have constant symptoms. Instead, they have flare-ups followed by relatively symptom-free periods, called remissions.
Joint problems caused by RA usually get worse over time. However, early treatment can delay serious joint damage for a number of years.