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Rheumatoid Arthritis 101: What You Need to Know

Discover what rheumatoid arthritis is and what you can do to empower your health.

Feeling joint stiffness and discomfort is one of those symptoms we all associate with getting older. What if it’s not just aging, though? If you’re starting to have arthritis symptoms in middle age, it might be a unique condition called rheumatoid arthritis.

Table of Contents

1. What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

2. Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

3. What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

4. Potential Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

5. Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

6. How to Lower Your Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis and RA Complications

7. What You Can Do About Rheumatoid Arthritis

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis, often called RA, is a chronic autoimmune condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks the tissue in the lining of your joints. This causes inflammation in your joints and damage to the joint tissue. The damage is progressive and can create worsening stiffness and pain in your joints. Your immune system may also attack other tissue in your body, leading to inflammation elsewhere.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can look slightly different from person to person, but it usually creates these symptoms:

  • Swollen, painful joints
  • Pain in the small way joints first, like fingers and toes, then progressing to larger joints like knees, ankles, and wrists
  • Joint stiffness, especially in the morning and after periods of inactivity
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inflammation in other areas throughout the body

The tricky problem with RA is that the symptoms are very similar to osteoarthritis, the type of arthritis that is common with aging and is not autoimmune, and RA needs to be treated differently from osteoarthritis. The top clue that your arthritis may be RA rather than osteoarthritis is the age when it begins – RA usually appears in middle age, while osteoarthritis doesn’t typically appear until your senior years.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

As with many autoimmune conditions, medical research has not yet discovered a true “cause” for rheumatoid arthritis. We do know that it seems to have a genetic component. Most likely, some people’s genetics make them susceptible to RA, and then environmental factors trigger the RA.

There are some factors that seem to make people more at risk for RA. Women develop RA more often than men. Smoking increases the risk for RA, and you may have a higher risk as well if your mother smoked when you were a child.

Potential Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive and chronic condition. In addition to the ongoing joint pain, the tissue damage can cause other complications as the condition progresses.

Joint Deformity

Rheumatoid arthritis can damage your joints and create bone erosion that slowly progresses over the course of years. Eventually, this can deform your joints and make them difficult to use. For instance, your fingers may look crooked at the knuckles.

Chronic Pain

Unfortunately, RA causes inflammation in your joints and potentially other areas of your body on a continuous basis. This can lead to chronic pain that needs to be managed on a daily basis.

Loss of Balance

With rheumatoid arthritis, your joints accumulate damage over time that makes them stiff and difficult to use. That includes joints you need to walk, like your toes, knees, and hips. As a result, you may lose some of your balance and steadiness.


The bone erosion that comes from rheumatoid arthritis can contribute to osteoporosis, a condition in which your bones become weaker and more prone to fractures. This is particularly challenging because if your RA causes you to have more difficulty walking, you’re more prone to falling as well.

Rheumatoid Nodules

People with RA can develop firm bumps of tissue called rheumatoid nodules. Those nodules develop as a result of the ongoing inflammation and immune reactions in your body. They often develop in areas like the elbows but then can form in your lungs, heart, or elsewhere.

Heart Disease

People with rheumatoid arthritis have a higher risk for heart disease at an earlier age. They are more prone to hardened arteries and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation around the heart.

Lung Disease

RA causes an increased risk for scarring and inflammation throughout the lungs. This can cause progressive difficulty breathing.

Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

While there is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are ways to manage the symptoms and minimize the condition’s progression. A specialized rheumatologist will likely prescribe a combination of different medications and strategies.

DMARD Medications

There is a specific type of medication that is used for RA called DMARDs: disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. These medications slow the progression of RA and limit the tissue damage so you can enjoy healthier, more functional, and comfortable joints for longer.

Thanks to ongoing medical research, there are now several different types of DMARDs. In addition to conventional DMARDs, there are biological DMARDs that modify your biological response to RA. There are also targeted synthetic DMARDs that your doctor may use if your body doesn’t respond to conventional or biological DMARDs.

Medications to Reduce Inflammation

While DMARDs can limit the effects and progression of your RA, your doctor may also recommend medications to reduce the inflammation and help you stay comfortable from day to day. Simple over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen and naproxen can work well for this. Corticosteroids may be an option too.

Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy

For people with RA, keeping joints mobile and flexible is a top priority. Physical therapy or occupational therapy can offer specific exercises and movements to help the joints function more smoothly.

Physical Therapy
Credit: Unsplash

How to Lower Your Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis and RA Complications

If you have RA, there are lifestyle choices you can make that will help to minimize the effects of your RA and lower your risk for future complications. One of the most important strategies is to exercise regularly, building up the muscles around your joints to help your joints stay mobile.

Stress management plays a role in rheumatoid arthritis as well, so strategies like meditation can be helpful. It’s also important to avoid smoking because it can make RA worse.

What You Can Do About Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you believe you may have rheumatoid arthritis or if you’ve been diagnosed and are exploring your treatment options, we’re here to help. Contact SRx to work with our exceptional team of specialty pharmacies and clinics to get targeted treatments for RA and put you in control of your health.

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