Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Causes, symptoms, and treatment

Rheumatoid arthritisRheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the joints instead of foreign bodies like germs and bacteria, creating inflammation. Approximately 1.5 million Americans have RA, and women are three times more likely to develop it than men. Continue reading to learn more about rheumatoid arthritis, including symptoms, treatments, and risk factors.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes and risk factors

Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by a fault in the immune system that results in it attacking the joints, causing inflammation that leads to a thickening of the synovium. The synovium creates a fluid that helps to lubricate your joints, and when it thickens, it causes swelling and pain in and around the affected areas. Eventually, this thickened tissue can destroy the cartilage and bone, and the tendons and ligaments holding the joint together stretch and weaken, causing the joint to lose its shape and alignment.


While researchers believe there is some sort of genetic link to developing rheumatoid arthritis, there has yet to be a conclusive study proving causality. Some confirmed risk factors for developing RA include:

Sex: Women are three times more likely to develop RA than men.

Age: While it can develop at any age, the onset of RA most commonly occurs between the ages of 40 and 60.

Family history: If a member of your family already has rheumatoid arthritis, your risk of developing the disease may be increased.

Smoking: People who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop RA and experience the disease more severely.

Environment: Exposure to asbestos and silica may increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Obesity: Those who are overweight or obese may have a higher risk of developing RA, most notably women diagnosed at 55 or younger.

Rheumatoid arthritis complications

In addition to joint pain and weakness, rheumatoid arthritis can also lead to a host of complications. These complications include:

Osteoporosis: RA, as well as some of the medications used to treat it, can lead to osteoporosis, which further weakens the bones and increases your risk of sustaining a break or fracture.

Rheumatoid nodules: Rheumatoid nodules are firm masses of tissue that can form anywhere in the body, but are most commonly found near pressure points like the elbows.

Dry eyes and mouth: Sjogren’s syndrome is a condition that decreases the amount of moisture in both the eyes and mouth and is commonly experienced by those who suffer from RA.

Infections: As it is a disease that affects the immune system, RA can make you more susceptible to infections. Additionally, many of the medications used to fight RA can also impair the immune system, further increasing your risk of infection.

Carpal tunnel syndrome: If your RA affects your wrists, the inflammation may press on the nerves that affect your hands and fingers, causing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Heart problems: Hardened and blocked arteries are also more common in those with RA, as well as inflammation of the membrane surrounding your heart.

Lung disease: RA also increases your risk of developing a progressive shortness of breath caused by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues.

Lymphoma: Rheumatoid arthritis can also increase your risk of developing blood cancer that affects the lymph system, known as lymphoma.

Symptoms of RA

Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect your skin, eyes, lungs, heart, kidneys, nerves, and bone marrow, though the most common symptoms still occur around the joints. Some of the signs to watch for are:

  • Warm, tender, or swollen joints
  • Joint stiffness especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

The disease often begins in the smaller joints of your fingers and toes and progresses to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders.

Diagnosing RA

Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose at the early stage, as its first symptoms are often similar to those of many other conditions. There is no specific blood test or physical exam that can diagnose RA on its own. Instead, a physician will often combine a blood test, physical exam, and medical imaging to diagnose and track the progression of your RA. The blood test will determine if you have a higher ESR or SRP rate, which can point to inflammation. The physical exam will test for joint swelling, redness, and warmth, while an x-ray or MRI may be used to determine the severity of the RA within your body.

Treating rheumatoid arthritis

There are a variety of treatment options available for those with rheumatoid arthritis depending on the severity of the disease. Some of the most common include:

Medication: A combination of different drugs may be required to treat your rheumatoid arthritis. On top of an analgesic to manage pain, your doctor may also prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, or a steroid. Physicians will often combine these different kinds of medication to best manage your pain and delay the progression of the disease.

Physical therapy: A range of physical therapies may prove beneficial to the management of rheumatoid arthritis. Your physical therapist can recommend a number of exercises and stretches to ease the pain on your joints and strengthen the surrounding muscles to provide support. Hydrotherapy may be offered, as exercising in a warm pool has been known to ease joint pain. Getting the advice of an occupational therapist may also prove beneficial if your RA is inhibiting daily tasks, as they can recommend alternative ways of completing these movements without putting too much strain on the affected joints.

Surgery: While not as commonly used, surgery is an option to help those with RA. Operations range from minor procedures like releasing a nerve or tendon to major operations like replacing a hip, elbow, knee or shoulder.

Related: Rheumatoid arthritis remedies: Diet and exercise

Home remedies for rheumatoid arthritis

In addition to medication, physical therapy, or surgery, there are also a variety of ways to ease the symptoms of RA at home. Some of the most popular home remedies are:

Exercise: Regular low-impact exercise may help to strengthen the muscles around the affected joints, as well as help to fight fatigue. For those just starting out, walking or swimming at an easy pace are both good for beginners. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen in order to ensure you don’t accidentally worsen your condition.

Heat and cold treatments: Alternating between icing and applying heat to the affected areas can help manage pain. The coldness of the ice can help reduce swelling and inflammation as well as numb pain, while applying heat helps to relax muscles.

Relax: Use relaxation techniques to manage and cope with pain.

Take control: Come up with an arthritis management plan with the help of your doctor to regain control of your disease and your daily life.

Know your limits: RA can increase fatigue, and your body may need the rest you’re craving to better cope and heal. Taking a short nap when you’re tired can prevent any further injury from occurring due to overtiredness or overworking your joints.

Connect: Support is vital to dealing with the pain and stress of RA. Talk to a trusted family member or friend when you are feeling overwhelmed, and be sure to update your circle with regards to your pain level. Also, you may want to seek out others who are living with RA, either online or in person, to share the experience with others who understand and may have strategies or tips for coping.


Take time for yourself: Make time to do something you like every day. Listen to your favorite music, write in a journal, or go for a walk to help you destress and find peace of mind.

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause swelling and pain in your joints that may lead to even worse complications. There are a variety of treatments available for RA, as well as options for coping at home. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor to get a proper diagnosis so you can begin treatment to relieve your pain as soon as possible.

Related: Rheumatoid arthritis and sexual dysfunction: Impact and tips

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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