Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. The symptoms usually affect the hands, feet and wrists.

There may be periods where symptoms become worse, known as flare-ups or flares.

A flare can be difficult to predict, but with treatment it's possible to decrease the number of flares and minimise or prevent long-term damage to the joints.

Some people with rheumatoid arthritis also experience problems in other parts of the body, or more general symptoms such as tiredness and weight loss.

Read about the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, so they can try to identify the underlying cause.

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis quickly is important because early treatment can help stop the condition getting worse and reduce the risk of further problems such as joint damage.

Read about diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis.

Causes of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means your immune system – which usually fights infection – attacks the cells that line your joints by mistake, making the joints swollen, stiff and painful.

Over time, this can damage the joint itself, the cartilage and nearby bone.

It's not clear what triggers this problem with the immune system, although you're at an increased risk if:

  • you are a woman
  • you have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis
  • you smoke

Read more about the causes of rheumatoid arthritis.

Treating rheumatoid arthritis

There's no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. However, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment enables many people with rheumatoid arthritis to have periods of months or even years between flares. This can help them to lead full lives and continue regular employment.

The main treatment options include:

  • medication that is taken in the long-term to relieve symptoms and slow the progress of the condition
  • supportive treatments, such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy, to help keep you mobile and find ways around any problems you have with daily activities
  • surgery to correct any joint problems that develop 

Read about treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Depending on how much pain, stiffness and joint damage you have, you may have to adapt the way you carry out simple daily tasks. They can become difficult or take longer to complete.

Read about living with rheumatoid arthritis.

Complications of rheumatoid arthritis

Having rheumatoid arthritis can lead to several other conditions that may cause additional symptoms and can sometimes be life-threatening.

Possible complications include:

Ensuring that rheumatoid arthritis is well controlled helps reduce your risk of complications such as these.

Read about complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis

A rheumatologist describes the effects of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints, its most common symptoms and the treatment options available.

Media last reviewed: 21/04/2015

Next review due: 21/04/2017

Page last reviewed: 12/08/2016

Next review due: 12/08/2019