Rheumatoid Arthritis

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.

More than 2 million adults in the United States 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.

Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects joints in the hands and feet, but larger joints such as hips, knees and elbows also may be involved. The disease affects joints symmetrically, which means that if one hand is affected, the other also will be affected.

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Swelling and pain in the joints
  • Difficulty moving
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Decreased energy
  • Lumps, called rheumatoid nodules, under the skin in areas subject to pressure, such as the elbows

The severity and range of symptoms may differ for each person. In addition, symptoms can affect other parts of the body in addition to the joints.

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis differ for each person and can be similar to other forms of arthritis and joint conditions. As a result, your doctor will use a variety of tests to diagnose the disease and to rule out other conditions.

Medical History: Your doctor will begin by taking your medical history. This will include asking about your symptoms.

Physical Examination: Your doctor will conduct a complete physical examination, which will include your joints as well as other parts of your body.

Laboratory Tests: You will be tested for the rheumatoid factor, which is an antibody that is present in the blood of most patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, not all people with rheumatoid arthritis test positive for rheumatoid factor and some who do test positive never develop the disease. Other common tests include the erythrocyte sedimentation rate, which indicates inflammation in the body, as well as a white blood cell count and a blood test for anemia.

X-rays: X-rays may be used to determine the amount of joint damage.

There currently is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, although highly effective medications are available. The major goals of therapy are to reduce pain and discomfort, prevent deformities and loss of joint function, and improve a person's function, well-being and quality of life.

Drug Therapy

There are three classes of drugs commonly used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)

Medications relieve symptoms and work to slow the progression of the disease.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Rheumatoid Arthritis
400 Parnassus Ave., Floor B-1
San Francisco, CA 94143
Phone: (415) 353-2497
Fax: (415) 353-2530
Appointment information

Arthritis & Joint Replacement Center
1500 Owens St., Suite 430
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353–2808
Fax: (415) 885–3862
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