Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Though there is no cure, early diagnosis and treatment can help manage symptoms and prevent permanent joint damage.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that can cause joint pain, inflammation, and damage throughout your body.

The joint damage that RA causes usually happens on both sides of the body. So, if a joint is affected in one of your arms or legs, the same joint in the other arm or leg will probably be affected, too. This is one way that doctors distinguish RA from other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis (OA).

Treatments work best when RA is diagnosed early, so it’s important to learn the signs. Read on to learn everything you want to know about RA, from types and symptoms to home remedies, diets, and other treatments.

There are several different types of RA. Knowing which type you have may help your healthcare professional choose the best type of treatment for you.

The types of RA include:

  • Seropositive RA:This is the most common type of RA. This type of arthritis may run in families. Seropositive RA may come with more severe symptoms than seronegative RA.
  • Seronegative RA: This means you’ve tested negative for both rheumatoid factor (RF) and a type of antibody called cyclic citrullinated peptides (CCP), but you’re still experiencing RA symptoms.
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA): As the name suggests, this is a form of RA in children. The prevalence varies depending on the research and has been found to be as high as 3.8 to 400 cases per 100,000 children.

RA is a chronic disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints. These symptoms and signs increase during periods known as flares or exacerbations. Other times are known as periods of remission, which is when symptoms can disappear completely.

RA symptoms commonly affect joints in the hands, wrists, and knees but can also affect tissues and organs throughout the body, including the lungs, heart, and eyes.

Symptoms can include stiffness, tenderness, swelling, and pain in more than one joint, among other non-joint-related symptoms.

These symptoms can vary from mild to severe. It’s important not to ignore your symptoms, even if they come and go. Knowing the early signs of RA will help you and your healthcare professional better treat and manage it.

Learn more: What does rheumatoid arthritis (RA) look like?

RA is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks healthy body tissues, causing inflammation and damage to the joints and sometimes to other body systems.

RA has some known triggers. If left untreated, the joint can become damaged, lose its shape and alignment, and ultimately be destroyed.

A number of genetic and environmental factors may increase your chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Though it can affect anyone at any age, the chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis increases with older age. Females assigned at birth (FAABs) are likelier to develop it than males assigned at birth (MAABs). Researchers believe that reproductive and hormonal factors may contribute to the development of this disease in females

Other risk factors include genetics, smoking, obesity, and diet.

Learn more: Understanding the causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Diagnosing RA can take time and may require multiple lab tests to confirm clinical examination findings. Your healthcare professional will use several tools to diagnose RA.

First, they’ll ask about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll also perform a physical exam of your joints, in which they will look for symptoms like swelling or issues with reflexes or joint function. If they suspect RA, they’ll most likely refer you to a specialist called a rheumatologist.

Since no single test can confirm a diagnosis of RA, your healthcare professional or rheumatologist may use several different types of tests. These include blood draws testing for antibodies or other substances elevated during inflammatory conditions. They may also send you for certain imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, X-ray, or MRI, ti see if joint damage has occurred and how severe it might be.

A complete evaluation and monitoring of other organ systems might be recommended for some people with RA, too.

Learn more: How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed? and blood tests for rheumatoid arthritis.

There’s no cure for RA, but medications can help manage the symptoms by controlling the inflammatory response. Decreasing the inflammation can also help to prevent further joint and organ damage.

Treat to Target, a treatment philosophy that rheumatologists use to effectively manage RA, has resulted in fewer symptoms and higher remission rates for those with RA. It involves:

  • setting a specific testing goal that signals either remission or low disease state
  • testing acute phase reactants and performing monthly monitoring to assess the progress of treatment and management plan
  • switching medication regimen promptly if progress isn’t made

In addition, certain alternative treatments, home remedies, and lifestyle adjustments may help improve one’s quality of life when living with RA. These include specific types of exercise, rest, and assistive devices.

Particularly, your doctor or dietitian may recommend an anti-inflammatory diet to help with your symptoms. This type of diet includes foods that have lots of omega-3 fatty acids. Avoiding trigger foods and choosing the right foods will help you manage your RA.

For many people, these treatments help them live an active life and reduce the risk of long-term complications. Your healthcare professional will work with you to determine the best treatment plan for your medical needs.

Learn more: Treating ra flares and exacerbations.

Having RA can put you at an increased chance of developing other health complications. Some people may also develop complications from medications used to treat RA.

In addition, living with RA can be challenging. It can negatively affect your day-to-day life by causing problems with mobility, insomnia, fatigue, and in some cases, mood disorders. The Healthline Resource Center for RA can help you navigate living with this disease.

Learn more: Rheumatoid arthritis complications.

What is the life expectancy of a person with rheumatoid arthritis?

Though RA isn’t fatal, it can shorten your lifespan by 3 to 10 years. Remission is possible but symptoms may return or other health issues can arise. The Arthritis Foundation reports that over 50% of early deaths in those with RA are due to heart disease. However, disease progression differs among individuals, with those testing positive for RF and anti-CCPs progressing faster.

Learn more: Can rheumatoid arthritis shorten your lifespan? and RA and life expectancy.

What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

Like RA, people with osteoarthritis (OA) can experience painful and stiff joints that make moving around difficult. People with OA may have joint swelling after extended activity, but OA isn’t considered an autoimmune disease. It’s related to the natural wear and tear of the joints as you age, or it can develop due to trauma.

Learn more about these two types of arthritis.

Is rheumatoid arthritis hereditary?

Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t considered either an autosomal dominant or recessive hereditary disease, but there are genes that may be linked to the disease. Some environmental causes such as hormones, stress, or infection are also thought to be triggers.

Does rheumatoid arthritis hurt all the time?

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause a variety of symptoms that may come and go in intensity. These periods of increased disease activity or flare are often followed by times of relief or remission when swelling and pain decrease or go away entirely.

RA is a chronic disease that doesn’t currently have a cure. That said, most people with RA don’t have constant symptoms. Instead, they have flare-ups followed by relatively symptom-free periods called remissions.

The course of the disease varies from person to person, and symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Though symptoms may stop for extended periods, joint problems caused by RA will usually get worse over time. That’s why early treatment is so important to help delay serious joint damage.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms or have concerns about RA, talk to your healthcare provider.

Read this article in Spanish.