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: 19/03/2013

Next review due: 19/03/2015

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints.

The hands, feet and wrists are commonly affected, but it can also cause problems in other parts of the body.

There may be periods where your symptoms become worse, known as a flare-up or flare. A flare can be difficult to predict, but with treatment it is possible to decrease the number of flares and minimise or prevent long-term damage to the joints.

Read more about the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and living with rheumatoid arthritis.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, so your GP 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 more about diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system – which usually fights infection – attacks the cells that line your joints by mistake, making them 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 are at an increased risk if you are a woman, you have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, or you smoke.

Read more about the causes of rheumatoid arthritis.

Who is affected

Rheumatoid arthritis affects around 400,000 people in the UK.

It can affect adults at any age, but most commonly starts between the ages of 40 and 50. About three times as many women as men are affected.

How rheumatoid arthritis is treated

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but early diagnosis and appropriate treatment enables many people with rheumatoid arthritis to have periods of months or even years between flares and to be able 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 more about treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Possible complications

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

Possible complications include carpal tunnel syndrome, inflammation of other areas of the body (such as the lungs, heart and eyes), and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

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

Read more about the complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

Page last reviewed: 04/08/2014

Next review due: 04/08/2016


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The 25 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

marsduck said on 28 May 2014

Hi Isla92,

Sorry to hear about your symptoms. I have a friend who had similar symptoms to you at a similar age (late teens early 20s) and she was diagnosed with polyarthritis and was told it was a type of juevenile arthritis. She is in her 30s now and I think things have settled down. I'm not a doctor but your message reminded me of her so maybe check out http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/conditions/polyarthritis.aspx

Good luck, hope things improve

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lala92 said on 11 May 2014

Hi everybody,

I wonder if anyone can help me?

I'm 21 and have been suffering from joint pain for 3 years. It used to affect only my knees and ankles but now affects my fingers, wrists and hips also. The pain can sometimes be horrendous and feels as though something is is deep within the centre of my bones trying to carve a way out. It radiates too e.g if it starts in my knee I know it will start in my ankle and hips soon after while the pain is concentrated in the joint, I get a dull throbbing ache in the surrounding muscles at the same time.

I have been to the doctors repeatedly but have been made to feel as though I'm imagining it and I know I'm not! I suffer from it almost daily. Sometimes for an hour or so or sometimes all day and even all night. Occasionally it stopsme from sleeping. It makes me exhausted and lethargic and i'm so miserable.

I have had the blood tests which all came back negative and an ultrasound on one knee, NOT during a flare up, which detected no significant inflammation. When I suffer the pain I only get very slight swelling but I do get heat from the affected joints as well. My father and grandmother both had arthritis.

I've been told that my blood tests were negative and that I'm fine but 3 years on I am suffering more and more often and with heightened severity. Does this sound like rheumatic pain to you? (Aimed at those who know from experience). I don't know if this is RA or something else but so fat no doctor can think of anything else. They've suggested RA but won't confirm diagnosis and provide treatment because of the bloodwork.

I'm at my wits end.

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jo_joanna said on 03 April 2014

I cannot say how sorry I am for any of you that have RA. I know how it feels trust me.... I got it myself... My experience was pretty bad. I got it when I was 10 (I'm 32 now) It was very aggressive and progressed really fast. It started in my hands then feet and knees. After one year it pretty much took over all of my joints. The pain, the stiffness and the swelling was unbearable! (And I was only a child) I spent all my childhood going from one hospital to another. I had days where I couldn't walk or do anything stayed in bed like a vegetable (horrible experience) obviously in time it affected other things. I had stomach ulcer, osteoporosis, anemia and at some point light depression. Doctors treated me with all sort of medication (too many to say) but I guess the worse one was MTX. It made me sick (vomit), lost appetite, lost weight, my hair was falling out I felt tired and overall unwell and it didn't make any positive effect on my joints whatsoever. After 8 years of this nightmare my RA finally calmed down, not for long, it came back with a big bang around 5 years ago. I was lucky enough to find an amazing doctor who helped me out and looked after me. After 1 year of trying I finally got an Enbrel and I'm back on my feet again! (sponsored by nhs) its a bio drug and comes with pre filled injections. It's has a very serious side effects (some fatal). It stops your immune system working so you need to be very careful how you use it. I was getting very ill almost every month, I had colds, flus even shingles! My doctor reduced the dose and now we got it all under control. I feel much better but I have my bad days. If you have RA please stay strong. My doctor used to say "Joanna you have to get used to it" harsh but true the pain will never go away. You just have to learn how to live with it.... After all be grateful cos it could be worse but be faithful cos it could also get better.........

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shiver1 said on 20 January 2014

I have had RA for four years and I have been really ill. As all the drugs I was given made me feel very ill I was at a loss as what to do. A chance meeting with an old friend who has MS but is ' well' changed my life. He told me to try high doses of vitamin D3 ( 5000 iu a day) and to look on the internet at the research being done. All I can tell you is that I am now well. I take pain relief on very wet and damp days when I need them but other than that I have my life back. I have no idea if this will work for you but what have you got to lose ? My consultant, who at first was very sceptical,is now supporting me. My bloods are almost normal.I feel it is important to gain the support of your GP and consultant before trying this.

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caffy said on 18 January 2014

I've been on Methatrexate for over 2 years now, it's not been able to stop my toes from twisting out of shape. I found my Occupational Therapist most helpful in explaining things to me, I also suffer from Fybromylagia, which is secondary to the RA, this brings similar symptoms IE fatigue, aching, etc. I have been ill with one bug or another since Nov, this is due to the Methatrexate lowering my immune system, I have learned that not everyone suffers the same symptoms, there is no text book answer to this disease, you have to manage your life around it and do the best you can for yourself, I have learned also that my pain is best managed with heat and rest.

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Snow Cat said on 09 December 2013

One orange seems to produce symptoms, so perhaps all sugars need to be removed, although it can be easier to say than to do, particularly if some sugars have positive health benefits. It seems that in some circumstances it is impossible to remove them, even if desired. Spicy food might also cause problems for some.

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Snow Cat said on 30 November 2013

Unsure about removing citrus fruit from the diet, as the citric acid seems to be good for killing harmful bacteria in the gut. Additionally the vitamin c which it contains is usually good for decreasing auto immune symptoms. I think refined sugars can safely be removed, together with refined carbohydrates generally, and products which contain yeast, such as bread, although croissants seem to be helpful. Anti-inflammatory foods include fats and oils. Vegetable oils, such as olive oil, appear to have anti-inflammatory effects. Foods such as nuts and any other food with a high fat content I think can assist with inflammatory conditions, such as oily fish or fish oil. To decrease the risk of the negative effects of a high fat diet, which can be scary, a person might wish to consume vegetable fats instead of animal fats. Use liberally for improved skin conditions.

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Shrek_In_A_Bath said on 17 November 2013

I have just been told i may have this conditon which i know can be a life changing and crippling condition and at 25 its a scary and upsetting thing to be told. Looking through the comments and thie infomation has put my mind at ease about living with this condition. I know its life long but it is nice to know i can lead a normal life. Thank you all

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StayStrong2607 said on 12 September 2013

Hey, #TooSickTooYoung ... I'm exactly your age and I've been having symptoms around the same time as you... and I've been diagnosed with RA not to long ago. My advice to you would be to alter your diet ... decrease the amount of foods that contain acid/citrus (tomatoes, pineapple, mangoes, strawberries, oranges e.t.c), and cut out red meat completely. Eat more veg and oily fish. And most importantly, be positive. Don't think you'll be crippled and deformed by 30, because you won't ... hopefully the rheumatologist can tend to you a.s.a.p and give you the right diagnosis and treatment, but in the mean time, I recommend you follow the advice above ... all the best x

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TooSickTooYoung said on 05 August 2013

Hi, I'm 18 and have been suffering RA symptoms quite severely from the age of 15. It started in my hips and spread down my legs within a few months. It's now in my arms, feet, and hands also. It's also occurring much more regularly. I had the blood tests and they came back negative, so I was referred to Musculoskeletal, who couldn't find a cause. Now I've been waiting 10 months to be seen by a rheumatologist. Has anyone got any experience of someone having this so young? I'm worried about the state I'll be in by the time I'm 30 if I can sometimes barely stand now at the age of 18

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aquestion said on 12 March 2013

ive heard drinking aloe vera juice can help relieve RA. true? any experiences here?

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Tjv said on 25 February 2013

I have ben diagnose eith psyritic arthritus yet i am getting rhuemotoid nodules , any one else Get this.

I started treatment in november taking Sulfazalazine
which as been increased to 3 two times a day,
I stil get problems with my hands including trigger finger in my left hand.
I saw the doctor on my frist appoinment but since then ive just seen the nurse on 2 other occasions and my next appointmnet is in 4 months despite still having problems. im not really happy with the treatment by basildon hospital, and although there as been some improvement in my condition , such as reduced tirednees and pain i still get problems with feet and hands. sometimes i cant even hold a mobile phone fwhile sitting down than a few minutes without resting.
but i cant find out if this is normal for someone with this problem

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Dorvita said on 08 June 2012

Hi there hope your all doing well. Actually I have seronegative arthritis too and have been told by quite a few experts that this is the worst kind because of the negative response in th blood it can be very hard to get a diagnosis and is often quicker at kicking in so to speak. Ive found that my own experiences with this condition have been similar to yours , people need to see us in wheel chairs etc to accept that we are infact suffering. I often feel like putting a sticker on my brow lol just to let them know that yes I look ok but believe me Im not. There are days I cant even stand up. The pain in my abdomin recently reminds me of nothing less than labour pains at their fullest. Its hard, very hard but there are the good days too when you can go outside with the family and enjoy your day like nothings wrong, your just like everyone else. Pitty these days dont happen very often but hey life is good and we have to be thankfull we dont have worse conditions. All the best to everyone. x

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JJRC1234 said on 29 October 2011

Im 16 years old and since january i have been suffering from sudden bruising and swelling in my foot toes wrist and hand. my blood tests have come up clear but ive been refferen to a RA specialist.
I was wondering if you believe that it could RA or something else ...
What is treatment for Ra?..
Thanks :)

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littlespringshowers said on 18 October 2011

Hi mymolly, I have just been diagnosed with RA aged 40. It does sound like that is what you have and like you my blood tests were ok apart from slightly raised ESR which shows some inflammation BUT you can have Sero-Negative RA which is when your bloods showed clear for the Rheumatoid factor but other tests showed symptoms of the condition. Apparently, this type of RA is less serious and less progressive.
I advise you to keep on with the doctor and get a referral to a Rheumatologist and ask for ultrasound scans, xrays or bone scans or like me all 3.
Good luck!

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mymolly said on 25 August 2011

i am 44yrs old female. i have been suffering from swollen hands and fingers that are painful and i cannot move easily, i also are suffering from neck pains which also grinds and clicks as do my wrists and back pain that goes down my leg and also in my my hips. in all i am feeling unwell and tired my blood test seem ok and i am awaiting results from neck and spine . my parents suffer from athritus do u think this may be what i have?

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ShazzaR said on 24 May 2011

Hi all I have been suffering with RA for some time now unbeknown to me. I am now awaiting an appointment with a Rhuematologist I suffer with all the symptoms you have spoken about even being really cold in the middle of the summer any advice you have for me would be most welcome.

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dodge1983 said on 02 March 2011

My Mom has just been diagnosed with RA after 8 years and I'm just trying to find some information for her. Does anyone know if this condition means you are entitled to a medical exemption certificate?

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frankxxx said on 23 December 2010

Hi Caffy (yet again)

I have just realised that Sulfasalazine is a DMARD, so my previous comments don't help much. It looks like your consultant is doing his/her best to help you. The only thing you can do (if you haven't done it already) is to talk to your consultant of your problems and worries.
Best of luck.

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frankxxx said on 22 December 2010


Also suggest you go to NRAS website www.nras.org.uk
Read articles on what drugs are used in treating RA. Steroids are covered as are DMARDS.. NRAS appears to be an excellent charity.organisaton.

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frankxxx said on 22 December 2010

Hi Caffy,

My previous comment of 22nd December was meant for you in response to your comment of 06 May 2010. By the way, I was originally put on 8 steroid pills a day, then on 6 (which was OK) , but when they tried to get down to 4 then the cold and pains etc returned with a vengeance. Have you looked at the video c lip? The consultant on the clip talks about these DMARDS. They were go going to try me on these before they realised my lungs were badly infected. Why not ask your consuktant about these? My correct diagnosis and treatment took ages and even then I had to pay to see the consultant. What I find suprising is that the symptoms of feeling very cold,healing problems, etc. are not more widely recognised and discussed by the professionals. It's as if they are reluctant to talk too much about the problems one may encounter. Still more openess is requied in the medical profession, I feel. Please excuse my typing errors. My hands are painful today.
Merry Christmas - or at least a painfree one

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frankxxx said on 22 December 2010

I have had RA for about a year. I have had the same symptoms as you whilst on steroids. Very cold spells (in the hot summer spell I was fully dressed in bed with the lelectric blanket on and it still took about 3 hours to recover). Cuts grazes and bruises take ages to heal. I get other problems due to steroids also (rashes, Thrush, problems with bowels - eben though I take pills to combat stomach problems). I believe that the cold spells are symptoms of a flare -up and the healing and other problems due to the steroids. i was asked to cut down on the steroids to 4 a day recently and I was OK for a week or so but then I had what I think is a flare-up and felt cold again and my breathing and joint pain have got worse. I don't know if they will keep me on steroids, but I know they woiuld like to wean me off them - because you are not
protected for oither diseases when on these. There are other things they could try that attempt to modify the disease I think they are called DMARDS. I urge you to speak up and ask your doctor about your worries. Good luck.

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TheNash said on 08 August 2010

Hi Caffy

I have a similar condition called Anklyosing Spondylitis, which causes arthritic pain similar to RA. I used to be on 6 pills of Sulfasalazine and 2 caps of Indomethacin a day. These days I take 2 pills of Sulfasalazine and 1 cap of Indomethacin a day. About a year ago a doctor at Middlesex Hospital recommended cutting down all starch in my diet. I started a starch free diet and noticed great improvements in my joint pain, and my damaged knee also healed well. I would strongly recommend purchasing a book called "The low starch diet" by Carol Sinclair, and following the diet. The book costs less than 10 pounds. Meanwhile may I recommend cutting out all potatoes, rice, bread and any kind of flour from your diet. To test if this helps, you can follow a high protein diet for a couple of days, such as eggs and sausage (non-processed kind to avoid stach stuffing) etc.

Hope this helps!

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gep said on 05 August 2010

I was first diagnosed with RA 12 years ago and the symptoms that caffy describes were very similar to the ones that i had in my first year. Now 12 years later i no longer take steroids and my health is much much better than it was in the early days. I continued to work full time as a retail manager working extensive hours on many occasions up to last year when at 61 i decided to take early retirement . I now spend my time doing diy and gardening with RA very much under control. Whilst accepting that the RA will never go away you should be able to lead a normal life free of excessive pain once your consultant has has your disease under control.

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caffy said on 06 May 2010

I was diagnosed with RA over a year ago, and in less than 9 months I was diagnosed with damaged knees, despite being on Sulfazalazine, at the high dose of 6 tablets per day, I take a number of other tablets including two strengths of steriod, I have noticed an increase in the amount of migraines I get now, I would like to know if the medication I am on is causing this, also I feel the cold very much now, despite being well padded, my feet and hands get very cold, and take ages to warm back up, I have noticed also if I cut myself, I bleed for ages, this seems to be a side effect of the steriods, do I need to take these steriods indefinately? the pain is very up and down, and not under control, although the hospital maintain the medication is working

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