Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Reviewed on 8/26/2020

Certain factors increase the risk of RA
Certain factors increase the risk of RA

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder (the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells). Certain factors increase the risk of RA. The common risk factors are as follows:

  • Sex: Women are at a higher risk than men.
  • Age: RA most commonly begins in middle age.
  • Family history: A positive family history increases the risk of the disease.
  • Obesity: Women aged under 55 years with obesity are at a higher risk than men.

Smoking and other environmental exposures to asbestos or silica are also common risk factors for RA.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the joints and other body systems, such as the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. RA is an autoimmune disorder, which means a condition when the body’s immune system attacks its own body tissues.

Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of wear and tear of the joints, whereas RA affects the lining of the joints, leading to inflammation, pain, and swelling that eventually leads to bone erosion and joint deformities. RA causes inflammation and damage in other parts of the body as well.

RA is a chronic disease with multiple flares of signs and symptoms and periods of remission (asymptomatic periods). Initially, the small joints are affected, especially the joints of the fingers and toes. As the disease progresses, other joints may be affected such as the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. RA also presents with systemic signs and symptoms and body systems other than joints may be affected in 40% of the cases. If not diagnosed early and appropriately treated, RA can lead to permanent deformities, disabilities, and serious systemic complications. While newer medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe RA can still cause physical disabilities.

What are the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The signs and symptoms in the joints include the following:

  • Tender, warm, and swollen joints
  • Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
  • Loss of joint function
  • Joint deformities

Systemic signs and symptoms are as follows:

What happens if you go untreated for rheumatoid arthritis?

If rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not diagnosed and appropriately treated, the disease can progress leading to complications and disabilities.

Complications of RA include the following:


What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)? Symptoms, Treatment, Diagnosis See Slideshow

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It is a lifelong disease with multiple flare-ups and periods of remission (asymptomatic periods). There are various treatment options available to control the progression of the disease and prevent complications. Treatment may usually involve a combination of more than one treatment modality. The treatment options are as follows:


  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These can relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Steroids: Corticosteroid medications suppress the immune system. They reduce inflammation, pain, and joint damage. 
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These drugs are effective in the treatment of RA. They suppress inflammation and relieve symptoms. They can slow the progression and prevent joint deformities and systemic complications. Some commonly prescribed DMARDs are methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine, and Arava (leflunomide).
  • Biological modifiers: These are a newer generation of DMARDs and usually taken with other DMARDs. They suppress inflammation. Some commonly used biological agents are infliximab, rituximab, sarilumab, etc.

Physical therapy

  • Patients are usually referred for physical or occupational therapy to learn exercises to improve and maintain joint flexibility and for the rehabilitation of joints.


  • Surgical procedures may be performed to help restore joint function and anatomy and reduce pain.


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