Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common types of chronic arthritis. It causes symptoms such as inflammation in the joints, which can lead to damage to bone and surrounding cartilage, and may affect other organs in the body.
It is an autoimmune disease -- a disorder that affects the immune system, causing the body to mistake its own healthy cells and tissues as foreign invaders. Although the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, autoimmunity plays a pivotal role in both its chronicity and progression.
Rheumatoid arthritis typically presents with signs of inflammation. The affected joints are swollen, warm, painful and stiff, particularly early in the morning on waking or following prolonged inactivity. Increased stiffness early in the morning typically lasts for more than an hour. Gentle movements may relieve symptoms in early stages of the disease.
As the disease progresses the inflammatory activity leads to tendon tethering and erosion and destruction of the joint surface, which impairs range of movement and leads to deformity. The fingers may suffer from almost any deformity depending on which joints are most involved.
More than 2 million adults across North America suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. The condition affects all races, ethnic groups and age groups, although it typically occurs in middle-age and older adults. In addition, women are two to three times more likely than men to develop the disease.
Various treatments are available. Non-pharmacological treatments do not stop progression of joint destruction, but can provide some relief to patients. They include:
Analgesia (painkillers) and anti-inflammatory drugs, including steroids, are used to suppress the symptoms, while disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are required to inhibit or halt the underlying immune process and prevent long-term damage.