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What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the lining of the joints, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. Left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis may damage joints so badly that they no longer function. This disease appears most often in young-adult to middle-age women. To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor will ask about your health history and perform an exam. X-rays and blood tests may also be needed.

Back view of hand with large joints. Closeup of inside of joint showing inflamed joint lining.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining (synovium) of the joints, sometimes causing swelling.

Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect most joints. But people tend to feel it in their fingers and wrists. The elbows, knees, and balls of the feet are also common sites. This disease often affects the same joint on both sides of the body. Symptoms may include:

  • Tender, inflamed joints. They may look red and feel warm.

  • Stiff joints. Long periods of rest or using a joint too long or too hard can make stiffness worse.

  • Joints that have lost normal shape and motion.

  • Feeling tired all the time.

Sources of Support

Don’t be afraid to seek support. If you have fears or concerns about your health, talk with your health care provider. Also talk with other people who have rheumatoid arthritis. They know what you’re going through. Perhaps they can provide insight and offer new ways to cope. For more information, contact the Arthritis Foundation at 800-283-7800.

If Surgery Is Needed

For people with severe joint damage, surgery can help decrease pain and make it easier to use a joint. Joint replacement, usually of the hip or knee, is one of the most common surgeries for this condition. Other types of surgery may be done to help control problems in the hands or feet.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barrus, Bryan, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marian, Valentin, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/9/2012
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.