What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the joints, mainly in the hands and feet.
Causes and Risk Factors
Rheumatoid arthritis is considered an autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack your own tissues, mainly the membranes (synovial sheaths) that line the joints . The synovial sheath and later the joint cartilage and nearby bone become inflamed.
The cause of the disease is not known but genetic predisposition, increased levels of the hormone prolactin, smoking, infection or trauma may increase the risk . In women, the disease can improve during pregnancy and worsen during breastfeeding .
Symptoms and Signs
The disease is more frequent in women than in men . The onset of the disease is usually gradual with morning stiffness, fatigue and low-grade fever: in women usually between 30 and 60 years of age and in men after 50, but sometimes in early adulthood . Children before 16 may have a similar condition called juvenile idiopathic arthritis . Typical symptoms and signs :
- Pain, tenderness, swelling, redness, warmth and stiffness–usually symmetrical–in the joints between the hands and fingers, the first knuckles of the fingers, wrists, joints between the feet and toes, and, sometimes, in shoulders, ankles, cervical spine, hips, elbows and the joints between the jaw and skull, which are worse in the morning or after a prolonged rest, last for more than 30 minutes and improve through the day
- Weakness in the hands
- Dry mouth and eyes (keratoconjunctivitis)
- Rheumatoid nodules — firm lumps, mainly near the elbows or on the upper side of the fingers
Symptoms can appear in flares or change with the weather .
- Tenosynovitis – inflammation of the muscle tendons and their sheaths
- Carpal tunnel syndrome (tingling and numbness in the thumb, index and middle finger)
- Wrist and finger deformities
- Baker cyst (a swelling behind the knee)
- A compression of one or more nerves in the neck spine (cervical radiculopathy)
- Reference: [1,3]
A doctor–an internist or rheumatologist–can make a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis from a combination of symptoms, signs and blood tests that show increased levels of the antibodies rheumatoid factor (RF), anti-CCP and ANA . RF factor can be sometimes increased in healthy individuals (false positive test) or negative in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (false negative test). RF is not specific for rheumatoid arthritis .
Sedimentation rate and CRP levels and anemia increase with the disease activity .
In later stages, an X-ray can show the degree of bone damage in the joints and MRI the damage of the spinal vertebra .
Diseases similar to rheumatoid arthritis [4,22]:
- Osteoarthritis (pain is not symmetric and affects the last rather than the first finger knuckles; pain increases through the day)
- Psoriatic arthritis (symmetrical; rash may be present or not)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (symmetrical; rash)
- Sjögren’s syndrome (symmetrical; dry eyes and mouth)
- Rheumatic fever
- Acute viral polyarthritis (parvovirus, hepatitis B and C virus, alphavirus)
- Gout (asymmetric, mainly affects the big toe)
- Reactive arthritis after genitourinary or bowel infection
- Arthritis associated with inflammatory bowel disease
- Infectious arthritis (usually in a single joint)
- Polymyalgia rheumatica (pain around the shoulders and hips)
- Fibromyalgia (no swelling, tender points in the upper back and chest, hips, elbows and knees)
- Lyme disease
- Paraneoplastic syndromes in lung or other cancers
Main points :
- Emedicine.com recommends methotrexate as the first drug (or, when not tolerated, sulfasalazine or leflunomide).
- Methotrexate in combination with a biological DMARD drug, such as adalimumab, is more effective than either drug alone. Methotrexate and other DMARDs may need few months to take effect, so analgesics, NSAIDs and steroids can be used together with them in meantime.
- In pregnancy, azathioprine and sulfasalazine are considered low-risk.
Chart 1. Medications for Rheumatoid Arthritis
|Non-biologic DMARDs for prevention of disease progression|
|Azathioprine, cyclosporine, D-penicillamine, gold salts, hydroxychloroquine, leflunomide, methotrexate, minocycline, sulfasalazine||Bone marrow or kidney toxicity, increased risk of infections or sunburn, pneumonitis (methotrexate), fatigue, lymphoma, headache, fever, nausea, metallic taste, itch|
|Analgesics for pain relief|
|Acetaminophen||Liver toxicity (together with alcohol)|
|Opioids: codeine, tramadol||Constipation, drowsiness, addiction|
|NSAIDs to reduce inflammation|
|Aspirin, celecoxib, diclofenac, ibuprofen, ketoprofen, naproxen||Water retention, high blood pressure, stomach bleeding, kidney damage|
|Steroids to reduce inflammation|
|Prednisone, prednisolone||Weight gain, increased blood pressure, osteoporosis, skin thinning, hair growth|
|Biologic DMARDs when other drugs do not work|
|TNF inhibitors: certolizumab, adalimumab, golimumab||Infections, heart failure|
|Non-TNF agents: abatacept, anakinra, etanercept, infliximab, rituximab, tocilizumab||Infections, headache|
|JANUS kinase inhibitors: tofacitinib||Infections, lymphoma|
Chart 1 sources: [6,7,8,9,10]
- Applying heat by heat pads, showering, spas, paraffin, ultrasound or diathermy relieves pain; it can be used before stretching.
- Ice packs, ice water or cooling sprays can relieve pain in acute inflammation.
- Custom insoles can reduce pain in the feet.
- Hand splints can improve functions of the hand.
- Reference: 
Physical therapy can include resistance exercise to increase muscle strength (in the absence of pain) .
There is INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE about the effect of hydrotherapy (balneotherapy) or using magnets in relieving pain in rheumatoid arthritis [12,21].
- Severely and repeatedly inflamed joints can be treated by a surgical removal of the synovial sheaths, joint fusion, joint replacement, etc.
- A compression of the spinal nerves in the neck can be treated by decompression therapy .
Supplements and Herbs
There is CONFLICTING EVIDENCE of the effectiveness of Evening primrose, borage and blackcurrant oil (which contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) [14,17,18,19], Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F [14,16] and fish oil (which contains omega-3 fatty acids) [11,12,19,20] in the prevention or treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE of the effectiveness of acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, thunder god vine, Boswellia, ginger, green tea, turmeric, beta-cryptoxanthin in the prevention or treatment of rheumatoid arthritis [12,13,14,15,16,18].
There seem to be NO HUMAN TRIALS about the effectiveness of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate in the treatment or prevention of rheumatoid arthritis .
There is INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE about the effectiveness of fasting, elimination, vegetarian, high-fruit, high-vegetable, Mediterranean or other special diets in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis [12,21].
There is NO EVIDENCE about the effectiveness of homeopathy in relieving pain .
Early diagnosis can greatly improve the effectiveness of treatment .
In some individuals, rheumatoid arthritis is self-limiting disease and in others a chronic disease, which can be life-long . RA factor levels that remain increased for more than 1 year increase the risk of joint deformities .
- 2016, Handout on health: rheumatoid arthritis National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
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- Rheumatoid arthritis, clinical presentation Emedicine
- Rheumatoid arthritis, differential diagnosis Emedicine
- Rheumatoid arthritis, workup Emedicine
- Rheumatoid arthritis, treatment & management Emedicine
- Rheumatoid arthritis, medications Emedicine
- Rheumatoid arthritis drug guide WebMD
- Rheumatoid arthritis drug guide WebMD
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) medications RxList
- Miles EA et al, 2012, Influence of marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on immune function and a systematic review of their effects on clinical outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis PubMed
- Rheumatoid arthritis: in depth National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
- Pattison DJ et al, 2004, The role of diet in susceptibility to rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review PubMed
- Cameron M et al, 2011, Herbal therapy for rheumatoid arthritis Cochrane
- Soeken KL et al 2003, Herbal medicines for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review PubMed
- Cameron M et al, 2009, Evidence of effectiveness of herbal medicinal products in the treatment of arthritis. Part 2: Rheumatoid arthritis PubMed
- Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) Mayo Clinic
- Macfarlane GJ et al, 2011, Evidence for the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines in the management of rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review PubMed
- Plendzki BC et al, 2011, Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis with Marine and Botanical Oils: Influence on Serum Lipids Hindawi
- Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid, evidence Mayo Clinic
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis John Hopkins Arthritis Center
- Diagnosis and differential diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis UpToDate