Rheumatoid arthritis is a form of inflammatory arthritis and a chronic autoimmune disease that causes stiffness, pain, loss of mobility, inflammation, and erosion (deterioration) in the joints. It usually affects multiple joints symmetrically, the hand and wrists most commonly, but also elbows, neck, shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, the development of nodules under the skin, especially at the elbows, and a sense of not feeling well (malaise). According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 1.3 million people in the United States have RA and there are nearly three times as many women as men with the disease. Patients with RA may develop anemia, systemic complications, and may have other co-existing autoimmune disorders and symptoms.
The symptoms and course of rheumatoid arthritis vary from person to person and can change on a daily basis. Rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical, meaning if a joint on one side of the body is affected, the corresponding joint on the other side of the body is also involved. Because the inflammation is systemic, patients often feel fatigued and may become anemic, lose their appetite and run a low-grade fever.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, meaning it currently can not be cured. Most people with RA experience intermittent bouts of intense disease activity, called flares. In some people the disease is continuously active and gets worse over time. Others enjoy long periods of remission – no disease activity or symptoms at all. Evidence shows that early diagnosis, early treatment, and aggressive treatment to put the disease into remission is the best means of avoiding joint destruction, organ damage and disability.
Medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can be divided into two groups: those that help relieve symptoms and reduce inflammation (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids), and those that can modify the disease or put it in remission (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and biologic agents).