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Rheumatoid Arthritis - 10 Things You Should Know

From Diagnosis to Disease Management

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Updated October 24, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

rheumatoid arthritis

Hand deformity with rheumatoid arthritis.

rudisill (iStock)

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, potentially disabling type of arthritis. If you have been diagnosed with the disease or you have signs and symptoms pointing to rheumatoid arthritis, you should know these 10 basic facts.

1 - Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune inflammatory type of arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is triggered by a malfunctioning immune system (i.e. autoimmune disease). The joints are primarily affected by rheumatoid arthritis, but organs may also be involved (i.e., systemic disease).

2 - Rheumatoid arthritis patients are classified as seropositive or seronegative.

Rheumatoid factor is an immunoglobulin (antibody) which can bind to other antibodies (normal proteins found in the blood which function within the immune system). A blood test is used to detect the presence of rheumatoid factor. About 80% of adults who have rheumatoid arthritis are positive for rheumatoid factor (i.e., seropositive rheumatoid arthritis). Approximately 20% of rheumatoid arthritis patients are negative for rheumatoid factor (i.e., seronegative rheumatoid arthritis).

3 - There are physical symptoms which are common to rheumatoid arthritis.

A physical examination by a rheumatologist (arthritis specialist) can detect certain signs and symptoms consistent with rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Early symptoms of warmth, swelling, and pain often begin in small joints of the fingers, wrists, and feet.
  • Affected joints are usually symmetrical (same joint on both sides of the body).
  • Morning stiffness lasting at least an hour or more.
  • Rheumatoid nodules (subcutaneous lumps) may be present.
  • Joint deformities caused by cartilage, tendon, and ligament damage.
  • Fatigue, loss of appetite, and low grade fever.

4 - Imaging studies and blood tests, along with the physical examination, are used in combination to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis.

No two cases of rheumatoid arthritis are exactly alike and the disease course is unpredictable. Some patients experience a lot of pain, even if their x-rays don't reveal evidence of severe joint damage. Some patients have evidence of severe joint damage on x-ray but do not experience a lot of pain. Differences between patients make it necessary for rheumatologists to observe the entire clinical picture (medical history, physical exam, imaging, and blood tests) in order to formulate an accurate diagnosis.

5 - With rheumatoid arthritis, joint damage can occur early after disease onset.

Often, joint damage occurs within the first two years following the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. The possibility of early joint damage makes early diagnosis and treatment essential. It's also important for rheumatoid arthritis patients and their doctors to consider an aggressive approach to treatment rather than a conservative approach.

6 - There are 1.5 million adults in the United States with rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, but osteoarthritis, which affects 27 million Americans, is the most common type of arthritis overall. Rheumatoid arthritis usually develops between 30 and 50 years of age, but it can develop in anyone at any age.

7 - People with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of mortality or death rate compared to the general population.

Older medical literature suggests that people with rheumatoid arthritis may live 10-15 years less than their healthy counterparts. Life expectancy is influenced by many factors though, including family history, overall health, and lifestyle choices. The newest class of arthritis drugs, referred to as biologics, hopefully will offer a better prognosis.

8 - There is a high risk of disability for rheumatoid arthritis patients.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arthritis and other rheumatic conditions are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. More than 30% of adults with doctor-diagnosed arthritis (all types) report a work limitation due to arthritis. According to Johns Hopkins, disability is higher among patients with rheumatoid arthritis, with 60% being unable to work 10 years after disease onset.

9 - Rheumatoid arthritis is three times more common in women than men.

The prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in women suggests that genetics and hormones may play some role in the cause of rheumatoid arthritis. Some types of arthritis are more prevalent among men, including gout and ankylosing spondylitis, but many types of arthritis are more prevalent among women. According to the CDC, 28.3 million women and 18.2 million men report doctor-diagnosed arthritis (all types).

10 - Even with physical limitations, rheumatoid arthritis patients can have a good quality of life.

Physical limitations may become disabling. The disease may challenge your emotions. Finances may be stretched by an inability to keep working. With a positive attitude, you can take action and find solutions.

Sources:

Arthritis Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 22, 2013.
http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis_related_stats.htm

Rheumatoid Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology. August 2012.
http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Rheumatoid_Arthritis/

Rheumatoid Arthritis Signs and Symptoms. Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. November 28,2012.
http://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/arthritis-info/rheumatoid-arthritis/ra-symptoms/>

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