Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of your joints. RA is the most common type of arthritis. According to the American College of Rheumatology, RA affects more than 1.3 million Americans. This condition affects both men and women, but approximately 75 percent of people with RA are women. One to three percent of women will develop RA at some point in their life.

RA is a chronic condition that causes a variety of symptoms, including:

  • joint pain
  • joint stiffness
  • limited mobility
  • swelling
  • fatigue
  • feelings of discomfort or not being well

Inflammation and joint pain can attack different parts of your body, such as the joints in your hands and feet. In some cases, RA causes inflammation in organs like your lungs or eyes.

Because many symptoms of RA are similar to those of a variety of other diseases, diagnosis can be difficult. A correct diagnosis requires clinical evaluation, X-rays, and a series of laboratory tests. Understanding the type of RA you have will help you and your doctor decide on a course of treatment.

If your blood tests positive for the protein called rheumatoid factor (RF) or the antibody anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP), it means your body may be actively producing an immune reaction to your normal tissues. Your chance of developing RA is four times greater if your parents or siblings test positive for RF. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, approximately 80 percent of people who have RA are RF-positive.

Having these proteins doesn’t necessarily mean you have RA. However, if you do, it can help doctors identify the type.

People who test negative for RF and anti-CCP in their blood can still have RA. Diagnosis isn’t based on just these tests. Your doctor will also take into account clinical symptoms, X-rays, and other laboratory tests. People who test negative for RF and anti-CCP tend to have a milder form of RA than those who test positive.

The Mayo Clinic reports that juvenile RA is the most common type of arthritis in children younger than age 17. Symptoms may be temporary or last for a lifetime. Like adult RA, symptoms of juvenile RA include joint inflammation, stiffness, and pain. If the disease is severe, it can cause eye inflammation and interfere with a child’s growth and development.

Autoimmune diseases share many common symptoms, making them particularly difficult to diagnose. People who have one autoimmune disorder often develop another. Some conditions that are overlapping or often confused with RA include:

RA can also be confused with osteoarthritis, which isn’t an autoimmune disease. It’s instead caused by wear and tear of joints.

RA is a chronic condition without a cure. Treatment can relieve symptoms and help you live a relatively active life. You’ll work closely with your doctor to determine the best course of action. Your primary doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist for treatment.

Treatment options for RA include:

  • over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
  • prescription corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and pain
  • disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or DMARDs, to slow the progression of the disease
  • biologic response modifiers, which target specific parts of your immune system to stop inflammation

Although many people respond to medication, your doctor may recommend surgery if RA causes permanent joint damage. Severe joint damage can limit independence and interfere with normal daily activity. Joint replacement surgery can restore function to damaged joints and relieve pain caused by inflammation.

Along with medication, you can reduce symptoms of RA with lifestyle modifications. Self-care home treatments can assist with improving your quality of life. For example, a diet rich in antioxidants can reduce inflammation and pain. Increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, fish, can also help ease symptoms.

Other lifestyle changes to improve symptoms of RA include:

  • Getting plenty of rest: Fatigue can worsen arthritis symptoms and trigger a flare-up. Take breaks throughout your day and avoid activities that put too much strain on your joints.
  • Increasing physical activity: Moderate exercise can improve joint mobility and reduce pain. This includes aerobics, strength training, and other low-impact exercises such as biking, walking, or swimming. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week.
  • Using heat and cold therapy: Apply a heat compress to reduce joint stiffness and a cold compress for joint pain.
  • Trying alternative therapies: Experiment with alternative therapies for relief. These include massage therapy and acupuncture. Some people have had success with supplements like omega-3 fish oils. Speak with your doctor before combining supplements with medication.

It’s important to see a doctor if you have persistent joint pain or swelling that doesn’t improve. If left untreated, RA can cause permanent joint damage and significantly restrict mobility. Additionally, poorly managed RA increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The good news is that there are several treatment options to alleviate symptoms of RA. Medication in conjunction with lifestyle changes can drastically improve your symptoms and lead to periods of remission where symptoms disappear.