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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the joints. The inflammation can become so severe that the function and appearance of the hands, as well as other parts of the body, can become affected.
In the hand, rheumatoid arthritis may cause deformities in the joints of the fingers, making it difficult to move the fingers. Lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, may form over small joints in the hands and the wrist. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) is a form of arthritis in children ages 16 or younger that causes inflammation and stiffness of joints for more than six weeks. Unlike adult rheumatoid arthritis, which is chronic and lasts a lifetime, children often outgrow juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. However, the disease can affect bone development in the growing child.
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What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues. The response of the body causes inflammation in and around the joints, which then may lead to a destruction of the skeletal system. Rheumatoid arthritis also may have devastating effects to other organs, such as the heart and lungs.

Researchers believe certain factors, including heredity, may contribute to the onset of the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men (70 percent of persons with rheumatoid arthritis are women). The disease most often occurs between the ages of 30 and 50.
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What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The joints most commonly affected by rheumatoid arthritis are in the hands, wrists, feet, ankles, knees, shoulders, and elbows. The disease typically causes inflammation symmetrically in the body, meaning the same joints are affected on both sides of the body. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may begin suddenly or gradually. The following are the most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling over the joints
  • decreased movement
  • pain that is worse with movement of the joints
  • bumps may be noted over the small joints
  • difficulty performing activities of daily living (ADLs), such as tying shoes, opening jars, or buttoning shirts
  • decrease ability to grasp or pinch

If a person has four or more of the following symptoms, he/she may be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis:

  • morning stiffness that lasts longer than one hour for at least six weeks
  • three or more joints that are inflamed for at least six weeks
  • presence of arthritis in the hand, wrist, or finger joints for at least six weeks
  • blood tests that reveal rheumatoid factor
  • x-rays that show characteristic changes in the joints
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This information is not designed to replace a physician's independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient.
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