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What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? Understanding This Joint Inflammation Disease

When you get a cut or a scrape, you might notice how it turns red, feels hot and becomes tender to the touch. This is inflammation. It’s your body’s natural immune response to heal itself and fight off bacteria and viruses. However, in certain people, their immune systems sometimes get it wrong and attack healthy cells, causing uncontrolled inflammation throughout the body. This is what happens when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that affects more than 1.5 million Americans.

Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly affects the joints, but it is considered a systemic disease, meaning it can affect all parts of the body. For people who have RA, the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium — the soft tissue that lines the joints — making it become hot, tender, swollen and inflamed. If left untreated, this can thicken the synovium so much that it damages the cartilage and deforms the joint.

In other parts of the body, RA can cause inflammation to your eyes, lungs and blood vessels. This can create further health complications such as dry eye, scarring in the lungs, and an increased risk for heart disease.

Unfortunately, doctors don’t know what causes rheumatoid arthritis, and there is currently no cure for this condition. However, researchers do know several factors that increase the risk of developing RA. In this article, we discuss those factors, how RA’s symptoms are different from other forms of arthritis and what a possible treatment plan may look like.

6 Factors that Increase the Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis

No one knows precisely what signals the body to begin attacking healthy cells in joints. However, researchers think developing RA can depend on both genetic factors and environmental factors.

  1. Family History/Genetics. Researchers have observed that rheumatoid arthritis can be inherited through genes passed down from one family member to another. People with a family history of RA have a higher risk of developing it if they are predisposed to other environmental factors like smoking or being overweight.
  2. Gender. Women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men.
  3. Positive Rheumatoid Factor. Rheumatoid factors are antibodies that attack healthy tissue instead of invader cells. In order to determine if you have RA, your doctor will possibly order a blood test for rheumatoid factors, which can indicate a number of diseases and conditions.
  4. Smoking. Researchers don’t know exactly why smoking increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, but they hypothesize it triggers some faulty function in the immune system. Smoking can also increase the severity of symptoms.
  5. Age. Even though rheumatoid arthritis can arise at any age, it most often occurs to people in their sixties.
  6. Weight. The relationship between weight and RA isn’t well-understood, but studies have shown that the more weight a person has, the higher the risk for developing the condition.

Rheumatoid Arthritis v. Other Types of Arthritis

While RA shares similar symptoms to other forms of arthritis, they’re fundamentally different in how the disease attacks the body, so each requires a different treatment path.


Osteoarthritis (OA) is over 20 times more common than rheumatoid arthritis, affecting roughly 32 million people in the U.S., compared to just 1.5 million living with RA. Osteoarthritis also is localized in that it’s confined to the joints, whereas RA is systemic since it affects the entire body.

Additionally, OA typically begins on one side of the body (i.e. asymmetrical), while RA affects both sides, such as both hands or both knees (i.e. symmetrical). Finally, your joints with OA don’t usually feel warm and red, as those symptoms are more associated with inflammation from RA.

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) only affects those living with psoriasis, and only 10-30% of psoriasis patients will develop PsA in their lifetime. Although PsA and RA share similar symptoms of redness, swelling and heat, PsA can cause your fingers to swell up so much that they resemble sausages.


Gout most often affects your feet, specifically the big toe. It occurs when higher-than-normal levels of uric acid appear in your bloodstream. This causes urate crystals to form in the joints, which can cause inflammation, swelling, redness, and heat.

Gout often comes in the form of “gout attacks” — severe outbursts of pain that can wake you up in the middle of the night and make your toe feel like it’s on fire. While sporadic in nature, you can prevent occasional flare-ups by changing your diet and taking prescription medication.


Lupus isn’t a form of arthritis, but it lists arthritis as a symptom since the condition can damage the joints. The symptoms are similar to RA, but they’re often less severe and include swelling, heat and tenderness.

Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Like other forms of arthritis, RA has no cure. If you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you’re probably working closely with a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating arthritis, to address three key areas:

  1. Reduce the pain and inflammation
  2. Prevent further joint damage
  3. Improve your quality of life

Common treatments your rheumatologist may recommend include:

  • Medication. This is the frontline defense for your joints to prevent joint deformity and slow the progression of the disease. A doctor might prescribe a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (also called a DMARD) that suppresses the immune system to get control of the inflammation. If DMARDs don’t work, you may be prescribed a biologic agent, which is genetically engineered and harder to make, thus usually more expensive.
  • Therapy. A doctor might recommend seeing a physical therapist for tips on joint care. You’ll learn how to keep your joints flexible and further improve your quality of life.
  • Self Care. Besides medication and therapy, self-care is an important part of achieving relief and/or remissions of symptoms. Self-care activities can range from learning how to eat an anti-inflammatory diet to practicing exercises that are easy on the joints.

It may seem hopeless given there’s no cure, but in reality, you have many options to help you manage your RA symptoms and live a good life.

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Common ingredients used in the Mediterranean diet for arthritisAn older man in pain from rheumatoid arthritis