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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a progressive disease, is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. Autoimmune means that the disease is caused by a defect in the body’s defense mechanism, or the immune system, which causes the body to attack the joints of the wrist, hands, and feet. Approximately 75 percent of people with RA are women, and the disease usually begins between the fourth and sixth decades of life. Symptoms vary, but RA typically causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and limited mobility of many joints. RA is unique in that stiffness is typically worse in the morning and lasts for one to two hours.
RA can be difficult to diagnose because of subtle symptoms and because RA can mimic many other diseases. Most patients who are suspected of having RA are referred to a rheumatologist–a physician specially trained to correctly diagnose and treat diseases like RA. Rheumatologists diagnose RA based on the person’s medical history, physical exam, and results of blood tests, such as rheumatoid factor-an antibody found in the blood of about 80 percent of patients with RA. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, can be helpful to determine if the disease is worsening.
Currently, there is no cure for RA, but treatment can provide symptom relief and help people maintain function at normal, or near normal, levels. For some, it is possible to achieve remission, which means that they have no signs of the disease. There is no single treatment for RA, and people often change treatments at least once during their lifetime. Common medications used for people with RA are disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and steroids.