Introduction 

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.




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

Page last reviewed: 04/08/2014

Next review due: 04/08/2016