Key points | Your joints | Symptoms | Cause | Seek advice early for RA | Treatment | Medications | Self-management | Joint surgery | Where to get help | How we can help | More to explore | Download PDF
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that results from a malfunctioning immune system.
Your immune system is designed to identify foreign bodies (e.g. bacteria and viruses) and attack them to keep you healthy. However in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in and around your joints causing ongoing inflammation and pain.
Joints are places where bones meet. Bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons all work together so that you can bend, twist, stretch and move about.
The ends of your bones are covered in a thin layer of cartilage. It acts like a slippery cushion absorbing shock and helping your joint move smoothly.
The joint is wrapped inside a tough capsule filled with synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates and nourishes the cartilage and other structures in the joint.
In RA, the immune system attack on the joints causes a build-up of synovial fluid and inflammation of the tissues that line the joint (synovial membrane). This causes pain, heat and swelling.
Cartilage becomes brittle and breaks down. Because the cartilage no longer has a smooth surface, the joint becomes stiff and painful to move.
Ligaments, tendons and muscles surrounding the joint can also be affected, causing joints to become unstable.
The most common symptoms of RA include:
Less common symptoms may include weight loss, inflammation of other body parts (e.g. lungs, eyes) or rheumatoid nodules (fleshy lumps below the elbows or on hands or feet).
Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but usually appears between the ages of 30 to 60. It affects women more often than men.
The course and severity of RA varies from person to person. Symptoms may change from day-to-day.
At times your symptoms (e.g. pain, fatigue, inflammation) can become more intense. This is a flare. Flares are unpredictable and can seem to come out of nowhere.
We don’t know what causes the immune system to malfunction and attack the joints, however it appears that your genes may play a role. Other factors such as hormones, infection (by an unknown bacteria or virus), emotional distress or environmental triggers (e.g. cigarette smoke, pollutants) may be involved.
If you’re experiencing joint pain and inflammation, it’s important that you discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Getting a diagnosis as soon as possible means that treatment can start quickly. Early treatment will help you to control the inflammation, manage pain more effectively and minimise the risk of long-term joint damage and disability.
If you’re diagnosed with RA you may be referred to a medical specialist known as a rheumatologist for further investigations and medical treatment.
While there’s no cure for RA, there are many strategies to help manage the condition and its symptoms so you can continue to lead a healthy and active life.
Your doctor or specialist may prescribe a number of different medications depending on your symptoms and the severity of your condition.
Some of the medications you may take include:
Depending on your particular symptoms, and how much pain and inflammation you have, you may take one medication or a combination of different medications.
There are other things you can do to manage your RA:
Surgery may be necessary in some cases if the joint is very painful or there’s a risk of losing joint function.
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This information has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Musculoskeletal Australia.