Rheumatoid arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition which attacks the lining of your joints (the synovial lining). This leads to inflammation, causing symptoms such as joint pain and stiffness. RA tends to affect the small joints of the hands and feet initially, and is often symmetrical – affecting both sides of the body.

RA is not just a disease of the joints, however. It can affect other organs in the body, including the lungs, heart and eyes.

RA affects about 1% of the population, and is seen more frequently in women. People generally develop RA between the age of 40 to 60, however, it can affect people of any age.

Untreated, RA can lead to irreversible joint damage, however, with early diagnosis and better treatments available, the disease can be well managed, and people with it can lead active lives.

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

Management of RA is based on treating the underlying inflammatory process of the disease, and preventing further damage to your joints. In addition, treatment aims to relieve the symptoms of RA, such as pain and joint swelling.

A group of drugs called DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) are used to reduce your immune system’s attack on the synovial lining of your joints, reducing long term damage and easing symptoms. The more commonly used DMARDs include methotrexate, sulfasalazine, leflunomide and hydroxychloroquine.

In cases which are difficult to control, a newer group of drugs called biologics may be considered. Biologics target particular parts of the immune system to prevent damage to joints. Examples are infliximab, etanercept and adalimumab.

For symptom control, analgesics (pain killers) may be used such as paracetamol or codeine. Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are also useful to reduce joint swelling, for example, ibuprofen, diclofenac or naproxen. Steroids, such as prednisolone or depo-medrone, may also be used as a “rescue” in severe flares of RA, and can sometimes be injected directly into a joint to provide targeted relief.

Where can I find out more about rheumatoid arthritis?

nrasNational Rheumatoid Arthritis Society

  • About RA – including more information about the condition, how it is diagnosed and treated, and living with the condition.
  • Help for you – including a helpline number, leaflets and publications, and links to local RA groups
  • Publications for professionals

arukArthritis Research UK

Last updated: October 3, 2017