Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks the lining of your joints, or synovial tissue. The cells in the tissue produce inflammatory chemicals that can damage the joint and surrounding tissue. This leads to:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • a limited range of motion and function

RA is a chronic, or long-term disease. Early and aggressive treatment can help you manage your symptoms and prevent joint damage.

Types of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

RA usually falls into one of two groups. These are called seropositive RA and seronegative RA.

Seropositive RA

Seropositive RA means that blood tests will show that your body has created antibodies against proteins in your body. These proteins are called anticyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCPs). It’s estimated that 60 to 80 percent of people with RA have anti-CCPs. These antibodies develop before the symptoms of RA appear.

Seropositive used to mean that you tested positive for rheumatoid factor (RF). However, RF is a different antibody than anti-CCP.

Seronegative RA

People who have seronegative RA don’t have RF or anti-CCPs. It’s still possible to have RA without these antibodies, but this may make it more difficult for you to get a diagnosis.

Diagnosis and treatment within six weeks of experiencing symptoms can play a role in keeping your pain at bay. It may even make it more likely that your symptoms will go into remission. However, if treatment isn’t started or isn’t effective, the inflammation can permanently damage your joints. This can make it difficult for you to perform everyday activities.

Symptoms of RA

Early Symptoms

Because RA is an autoimmune disease, the symptoms may not be limited to the joints. In fact, you might not realize you’re dealing with arthritis in the early stages of the disease. The initial signs of RA can include fatigue, a low-grade fever, and muscle aches.

Many of the early stage symptoms of RA could easily be mistaken for a viral infection.

Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness are often the main symptoms that occur as RA progresses. Small joints in the hands and feet are most commonly affected. Your joints might feel warm to the touch because of inflammation. You may begin to have trouble holding a pen or opening a jar as your condition progresses.

RA affects symmetrical joints. This means that you'll experience the symptoms on both sides of your body, such as both hands, at the same time.

Symptoms of RA Progression

The attack from your immune system can affect more than your synovial tissue. RA can also damage the ligaments and tendons that hold your joints together. You may also experience inflammation in your lungs.

Some people develop firm lumps under the skin of their:

  • fingers
  • spine
  • heels
  • elbows

These lumps are called rheumatoid nodules. They’re usually found on pressure points throughout the body.

Many people with RA experience flare-ups, or episodes when symptoms worsen. Lifestyle modification and medication can sometimes help reduce these flare-ups.

Some people who have RA also develop depression. You should talk to your doctor if you think you’ve developed depression. Antidepressant medications, exercise, and support groups may help you manage the symptoms.

Treatment Options

Starting treatment early, and following your treatment plan is the key to managing RA. Two types of medication are commonly prescribed to control RA are anti-inflammatory drugs and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Your doctor may prescribe one or both classes of medication.

Anti-Inflammatory Medications 

These medications work by reducing the system-wide inflammation and localized swelling. Most of these drugs also have pain-relieving properties. However, you’ll experience less pain when swelling and inflammation go down.

Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs (DMARDs)

Unlike anti-inflammatory medication, DMARDs slow the progression of the disease and promote remission by stopping your immune system from attacking. By suppressing your immune system, you can save your body from deformity and disability. However, there can be side effects. Because these drugs work by making your immune system less effective, you can become more susceptible to other illnesses, such as the common cold and flu.

Lifestyle Changes

Drug therapy plays a major role in controlling the progression of RA. However, making lifestyle changes can also help you manage symptoms and make you more comfortable.


Daily exercise may sound counterintuitive when your joints hurt. But it can be effective in reducing fatigue and maintaining joint flexibility and range of motion. There are many types of low-impact exercises that can help your RA, including:

  • water aerobics
  • tai chi
  • biking
  • walking

Talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.


Diet changes can also help you manage your symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in certain kinds of fish, walnuts, and flaxseed products, may reduce inflammation throughout the body.

Foods rich in antioxidant vitamins C, E, and A may also keep your body safe from oxidative stress and cell damage. Some people with RA have noticed an improvement in their symptoms when they eliminate dairy, sugar, or gluten.

Support Groups

Consider joining a support group for people with RA. A support group will allow you to share your feelings about the disease. Chronic arthritis may be something you have throughout your life, but it doesn’t have to take over your life.