A person with aching hands

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints. When untreated, joint damage and deformities eventually lead to difficulty moving the hands, wrists, knees, and/or hips. RA is considered a systemic disease because it can also involve more than just joints—potentially damaging the skin, blood vessels, lungs, eyes, and/or the heart. RA is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue. It is a chronic disorder that increases in prevalence with advancing age, but it can begin at any age.

Prescription treatments include anti-inflammatory medications, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors. Physical therapy and low impact exercises are recommended as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

    Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by inflammation and immune-mediated damage to the body’s tissue. These effects are produced by immune cells that mistakenly attack joints, and sometimes other organs of the body as well. Several underlying risk factors increase a person’s predisposition to RA, including having other immune diseases, a family history of RA, smoking, obesity, and stress.

  • Is rheumatoid arthritis an autoimmune disease?

    RA is considered an autoimmune disease. It is characterized by inflammation and tissue damage that is caused by the body’s own immune system working against itself. Excess immune cells and immune proteins chronically flood the joints and other tissue, attacking these structures as they would combat an infectious organism. There isn’t a clear trigger for the immune system overactivity.

  • Is rheumatoid arthritis hereditary?

    There is a hereditary component to RA, and you may be more prone to developing the disorder if you have a family history of RA or other autoimmune conditions. Certain inherited abnormalities in the genes that direct the immune system have been identified in association with RA. And genetic changes tend to be more commonly identified among people who develop RA at a young age.

  • How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

    RA diagnosis relies on a combination of symptoms, clinical exam, and diagnostic tests. The physical exam shows joint tenderness and swelling. Joint inflammation and degeneration may be seen on imaging tests. Inflammatory markers, including erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP), may be elevated in the blood. The 2010 RA Classification Criteria, a point-based system, may be used to aid in the diagnosis of RA.

  • What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

    Both conditions involve joint pain, and degeneration. Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear, and RA by immune system dysfunction. Osteoarthritis affects injured or overused joints and doesn’t involve other organs. RA affects multiple joints, and is a result of systemic disease. Prescription disease-modifying agents are a cornerstone of RA treatment, and exercise is central to osteoarthritis treatment. They don’t cause each other, but osteoarthritis and RA can coexist.

  • What are the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis?

    You may have joint stiffness, swelling, and tenderness with RA. The symptoms tend to be more noticeable in the morning, especially early in the disease course. And you can also have fatigue and fever. Because the early symptoms can be somewhat vague, RA can seem similar to other conditions like lupus and Lyme disease. Late signs include severe pain, joint deformity, and limited mobility.

Key Terms
COVID-19 and RA
Rheumatoid Arthritis and COVID-19: What to Know
Rheumatoid arthritis can give hand and wrist pain
Xeljanz (Tofacitinib) Side Effects
Slicing salmon on a cutting board while preparing a meal
Recommended Diet for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Your Mental Health
Eye Inflammation
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Your Eyes: What To Know
A man sits, holding one of his hands. He rubs one hand with his other, as though trying to relieve pain in his hand.
Understanding the Cycle of Pain in Rheumatoid Arthritis
Woman walking with cane and holding lower back
Rheumatoid Arthritis Age of Onset
Woman taking blood from another woman
Types of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Thyroid exam
Hypothyroidism and Rheumatoid Arthritis: What's the Link?
Group of Women
Autoimmune Diseases and Women: Causes and More
ElElderly woman pouring pills from bottle on hand, closeup view
Supplements for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Shot of a young woman having a consultation with her doctor
Disease or Disorder: What Is the Difference?
Woman on couch clutching wrist
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Wrist Symptoms and Treatment
An elderly Black woman sits at a weight lifting machine, holding her shoulder with one hand, appearing to be in discomfort or pain.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain: Causes, When to See a Doctor
Man doing yoga
Yoga for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Essential oil
Essential Oils for Rheumatoid Arthritis
A blood sample being held with a row of human samples for analytical testing
CCP Antibody Test: Uses, Side Effects, Procedure, Results
Rheumatoid arthritis, general practitioner examining patient and hand for signs of rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Blood Tests for Diagnosis
Staying Healthy with RA
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Infection Risk
Person taking pill
Prednisone for Pain
Chinese herbal medicine
Herbal Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Woman holding model kidney halves
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Your Kidneys: Overview and More
Seropositive Rheumatoid Arthritis: Overview and More
Body Systems
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Effects on the Body Systems
Hand and wrist pain in rheumatoid arthritis flare
Risks of Untreated Rheumatoid Arthritis
Eating a meal
9 Foods to Avoid With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Mature Doctor examining a Rheumatoid Arthritis patient
Olumiant: Uses, Side Effects, Dosages, Precautions
Stomach Pain
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Your Gastrointestinal Tract
tocilizumab medicine concentrate syringe
Actemra: Uses, Side Effects, Dosage, Precautions
Senior woman on a video telemedicine call with a doctor at home
Choosing Telemedicine for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Guide to Living Well
Rheumatoid Arthritis Disability
Rheumatoid Arthritis Disability: Overview and More
Keeping her levels under control
Kineret: Uses, Side Effects, Dosages, Precautions
Shoulder pain
Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Shoulders
Female doctor discussing with patient in medical room at hospital
Comorbidities in RA: Overview and More
Smoking and RA
Smoking and Rheumatoid Arthritis: What Are the Risks?
hands with rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications
Doctor talking to patient in office
Talking to Your Doctor About Rheumatoid Arthritis
A doctor checks a woman's hands for signs of rheumatoid arthritis.
How Rheumatoid Arthritis Is Diagnosed
Platelet-rich plasma injection of the knee
RA Medications: Goals, Effectiveness, and Side Effects
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis Stages of Progression
Woman holding her wrist symptomatic
Rheumatoid Arthritis Gender Differences
Mature woman in pain, holding knee
RA-Menopause Connection: What to Know
Healthcare professionals during a meeting at the hospital
Rheumatoid Arthritis Healthcare Team: Why You Need One
Rhematoid arthritis of the hands
Differences Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus
Woman having shoulder pain consultation with doctor
Can You Have Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Couple talking
5 Common Issues When Discussing Rheumatoid Arthritis
Doctor examining woman
How Psoriatic Arthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis Differ
Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis-Associated Uveitis: Overview and More
arthritic senior's hands cutting flowers
Living With Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid Arthritis
RA back pain
RA Back Pain: Prevalence, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
shoulder joint pain
Rheumatoid Arthritis Exacerbations: Recognition and Coping
woman reading prescription bottles
JAK Inhibitors: Uses, Drug Options, and Side Effects
Rendering of the cervical spine
Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Neck: Overview and More
Pregnancy Risks With Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Closeup of eyedropper putting liquid into open eye
Secondary Sjögren’s Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, and More
older male doctor talking to male patient
Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Go Into Remission?
doctor evaluating patient's wrist joint
Joint Counts and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Physiotherapist man giving exercise with dumbbell treatment About Arm and Shoulder of athlete male patient Physical therapy Visit the patient's home
Rheumatoid Sarcopenia: Causes and Treatment Options
A group of women friends drinking wine
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Drinking Alcohol: Is it Safe?
Page Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis. Updated September 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Updated July 27, 2020.

  3. American College of Rheumatology. Rheumatoid arthritis. Updated March 2019.

  4. Fatima Rizvi ST, Arif A, Azhar A. TNF gene promoter region polymorphisms and association with young-onset rheumatoid arthritis. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2019 Sep;32(5(Supplementary)):2295-2297. PMID: 31894057.

  5. Mjaavatten MD, Bykerk VP. Early rheumatoid arthritis: the performance of the 2010 ACR/EULAR criteria for diagnosing RA. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2013 Aug;27(4):451-66. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2013.09.001

  6. Cho J, Pyo JY, Fadriquela A, Uh Y, Lee JH. Comparison of the analytical and clinical performances of four anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibody assays for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. Clin Rheumatol. 2020 Sep 23. doi: 10.1007/s10067-020-05412-w

  7. American College of Rheumatology. Rheumatoid arthritis. Updated March 2019

  8. Jacob H, Curtis AM, Kearney CJ. Therapeutics on the clock: circadian medicine in the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases. Biochem Pharmacol. 2020 Sep 30:114254. doi:10.1016/j.bcp.2020.114254

  9. Nehring SM, Goyal A, Bansal P, Patel BC. C reactive protein (CRP). 2020 Jun 5. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan–.

  10. Alves F, Gonçalo M. Suspected inflammatory rheumatic diseases in patients presenting with skin rashes. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2019 Aug;33(4):101440. doi:10.1016/j.berh.2019.101440

  11. Lipina M, Makarov M, Mukhanov V, Karpashevich A, Maglevaniy S, Amirdjапоvа V, Archipov S. Arthroscopic synovectomy of the knee joint for rheumatoid arthritis. Int Orthop. 2019 Aug;43(8):1859-1863. doi:10.1007/s00264-018-4160-z

  12. Amini A, Yahyanezhad S, Velez E, Gholamrezanezhad A, Fotoohi M, Jafari E, Assadi M. Prospective evaluation of phosphorus-32 radiation synovectomy in patients with severe and chronic rheumatoid arthritis unresponsive to conventional medical treatment. Nucl Med Commun. 2020 Jan;41(1):65-72. doi:10.1097/MNM.0000000000001116

Additional Reading