About 2.1 million people in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis, or RA. It is painful and can make it hard to walk or move, since it affects the joints. Anyone can get RA, but women are almost three times more likely to have it than men. It can affect people of any age, but often starts between the ages of 20 and 60.
RA is a chronic, or long-term, kind of arthritis. It starts when your immune system attacks your own body. No one knows why this happens.
It’s hard to know how RA will progress, but it usually has three stages. First, inflammation of the joint lining causes pain, warmth, stiffness, redness, and swelling. The joint lining thickens, and inflamed cells release chemicals that damage the cartilage and bone. This can then affect the shape and movement of the joint.
RA can cause pain in any joint. It's most common in the wrists, hands, elbows, shoulders, knees, knuckles, and ankles. It often occurs in the same joint on both sides of the body. RA can be harder to live with than other kinds of arthritis. Joint damage can happen soon after the disease begins.
Symptoms of RA vary depending on the person. Sometimes they get worse for awhile. This is called a “flare” Signs of RA can include:
It's important to find out if you have RA so you can start treatment. Early treatment can limit damage and help you stay active.
Medicines for RA do different jobs. Some help control pain and swelling, but do not keep the RA from getting worse. These include steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, with brand names like Motrin®, Advil®, and Aleve®. Or your doctor might recommend analgesics (medicines that treat pain, such as acetaminophen, with brand names like Tylenol®, Anacin AF®, and Bromo Seltzer®).
Some medicines for RA can help protect your joints and prevent damage. They work best in the first two years you have RA. These drugs are called "disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs" or DMARDs. They can take from several weeks to six months to work. But they might work so well that you don't need pain medicine. These drugs work on your immune system and could cause side effects. When you take them, your body might have trouble fighting infections. You may need blood tests to make sure the medicine is not hurting your blood cells, liver, lungs, or kidneys.
You can also ease the pain of RA with regular exercise. Moderate activity gives you more energy, strengthens muscles and bones, increases flexibility, and improves your sense of well-being. Stress can make your RA feel worse, but staying active can help you manage it. Exercise helps you sleep better, too.
Lift your spirits by doing things you enjoy. Listen to your body, and work a few rest periods into your day. This can help you avoid flares that can damage your joints. To relax, try techniques like deep breathing, progressive relaxation, or guided imagery.
Visit the Arthritis Foundation to learn more about RA.