Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the healthy tissues of the joints, causing them to become painful and inflamed. Over time, chronic inflammation can destroy the joint tissues and cause joints to become deformed, limiting your ability to perform regular activities, including walking and using your hands. More common among women than men, rheumatoid arthritis typically begins between ages 40 and 60.
The underlying cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known, but researchers do feel genetics plays a role. However, studies have shown rheumatoid arthritis is not hereditary, which means having a family member with the disease does not make it more likely you'll develop it yourself, nor can you pass it down to your children. Researchers believe the disease process is triggered when a bacterium, virus or other foreign “invader” causes the immune system to malfunction.
Joint pain and swelling are the primary symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and can develop over a period of months. Joint stiffness and persistent fatigue often occur even before pain and swelling are observed. Low-grade fever, weight loss, loss of appetite and formation of nodules or lumps over pressure points are also common symptoms in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis typically occurs symmetrically, affecting the same joint on both sides of the body – for instance, both elbows or both knees. Joints in the hands, wrists, ankles, feet and neck are also commonly affected. Stiffness often occurs after prolonged periods of resting and may persist for several hours.
To some degree, treatment can vary based on your symptoms and how far the disease has progressed. Medicines, exercise or physical therapy, and lifestyle changes are usually all part of any treatment regimen. There is no cure, and treatment is ongoing.
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