Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid Arthritis causes inflammation in the joints and it is considered an autoimmune disease.  This means that the tissues in the body attack the immune system, which results in the inflammation.  Typically, it is the joints and the tissue that become inflamed but other organs can become inflamed, too. When it happens to people under the age of 16 it is called juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

What are the Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The first symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis usually include stiffness in the joint or tenderness or swelling.  It is usually more visible in when one is less active or in the mornings.  It often starts with smaller joints like in the fingers or toes.  This can be accompanied by weight loss, fatigue, or fever.

As time progresses, the symptoms often spread to other joints like the knees, elbows, hips, or shoulders.  Most of the time, people feel the symptoms in the joints on each side of the body.

Symptoms can also affect the eyes, skin, kidneys, lungs, salivary glands, and heart.  People who suffer with rheumatoid arthritis may also have complications with blood vessels, nerve tissue, or bone marrow.

Symptoms come and go and can even go into remission.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis is generally considered a hereditary disease, but there are clearly many non-genetic factors at work. It is known that persons with rheumatoid arthritis generally develop the disease around their late 40s and will see the disease progressively change into something more severe. This suggests that rheumatoid arthritis is in fact caused by some sort of “triggering” virus or bacteria. Evidence for this can be seen in the presence of certain oral pathogens within the blood of rheumatoid arthritis patients. Streptococcus mutans levels are generally much higher in affected patients and often spread to many parts of the body.

Lifestyle habits also seem to play an important role in developing rheumatoid arthritis as well. For instance, it is known that smokers have a prevalence rate of rheumatoid arthritis twice that of the general population. Another major factor in developing rheumatoid arthritis is lack of vitamin D. Persons who have high levels of vitamin D appear to have markedly lower rates of the condition.

How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?

There is not a cure for rheumatoid arthritis but it can go into remission for long periods of time with medications.  Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can include:

  • Steroids: reduce inflammation and pain; decrease the progress of joint damage
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): reduce inflammation and pain; includes both over-the-counter and prescription variations
  • Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): slow down the progress of joint or tissue damage
  • Biologic agents (biologic response modifiers): a new type of DMARDs; targets parts of the immune system to minimize inflammation and damage to tissue or joints

Therapy is another option for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.  Exercises help make joints more flexible and decrease stress on joints.

Surgery is a last resort but can restore damaged joints and fix deformities that result from long term rheumatoid arthritis.  Procedures that may be used include synovectomy, tendon repair, total joint replacement or joint fusion.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Prevention

There is a growing body of research suggesting that there are ways to prevent rheumatoid arthritis. Sunlight exposure is negatively correlated with the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis with the southwest of the United States having the lowest rates of rheumatoid arthritis while the northeast has the highest rates. Additionally, tobacco use may affect levels of vitamin D by preventing the proper absorption of vitamin D.

However, there may be an even more important factor in rheumatoid arthritis prevention. Specifically, there are strains of oral bacteria involved in the development of rheumatoid arthritis. This suggests that good oral care may actually serve as a means of preventing rheumatoid arthritis by keeping inflammatory pathogens out of the bodily system. These factors reveal that although rheumatoid arthritis certainly has genetic components and a common onset, it is far from inevitable.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
December 19, 2017