What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory disease that causes painful swelling, redness, and stiffness of the joints. This type of arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body's immune system attacks its own tissues-the joints in the case of rheumatoid arthritis. It's unclear what initiates this inflammatory process.
The distinguishing feature of rheumatoid arthritis is symmetric joint inflammation. The joints on both sides of the body become inflamed (such as both wrists or both knees). The symmetric nature of the inflammation is one of the factors doctors use to differentiate rheumatoid arthritis from the other forms of arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women than in men and usually first appears between ages 25 and 50. Joints of the hands and feet are most commonly affected first; typically, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected. Joints can become enlarged and deformed, and freeze into one position. Most people respond to treatment, but the disease can cause serious and permanent disability.
Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, some drugs can ease its symptoms while others can slow the course of disease. Most people require prescription medicines, but some people may try over-the-counter or herbal products. Occupational and physical therapy can also help.