“Inflammatory arthritis” is a broad term for several disorders when an abnormal immune response leads to joint inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that primarily affects joints in the hands, wrists, and feet.

Some types of inflammatory arthritis include psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and RA.

RA is a chronic autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, which is the lining of the joints, causing inflammation.

This article explains the differences between these two terms in more detail, including the symptoms of each and what to expect during diagnosis and treatment.

A person's legs hanging over the side of a dock, barefoot over the ocean. -1Share on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

“Inflammatory arthritis” is a broad term encompassing a diverse group of disorders characterized by joint inflammation.

Inflammation develops from an abnormal immune response when the body’s immune system mistakenly targets and attacks its joint tissues. This immune-mediated process leads to chronic inflammation, joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and potential joint damage over time.

Inflammatory arthritis includes:

Learn more about the different types of inflammatory arthritis.

Symptoms of inflammatory arthritis

Symptoms can depend on the type of inflammatory arthritis. General symptoms may include:

  • joint pain, swelling, and stiffness
  • warmth and tenderness in the joints
  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • nail changes, including pitting or separation from the nail bed
  • enthesitis, which is inflammation where tendons or ligaments attach to bones
  • dactylitis, which is severe swelling of fingers or toes
  • eye inflammation
  • lower back pain and stiffness, which may improve with exercise and worsen with rest
  • reduced flexibility and limited range of motion
  • skin symptoms, such as rashes or red, scaly patches

To better understand which symptoms may occur, a person can speak with a healthcare professional about the specific type of inflammatory arthritis they have.

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium. The synovium is the lining of the joints.

RA primarily affects the small joints of the hands, wrists, and feet but can also involve other joints. RA can lead to joint deformities and damage if left untreated.


Symptoms of RA include:

  • Joint pain and swelling: Joint pain is persistent and typically symmetrical, affecting the same joints on both sides of the body. The joints may also become swollen, tender, and warm.
  • Morning stiffness: People with RA may experience prolonged morning stiffness in the joints. This stiffness can last for more than an hour.
  • Fatigue: Chronic fatigue can result from ongoing inflammation, pain, disrupted sleep patterns, or the overall impact of the disease on the body.
  • Joint stiffness: Joint stiffness can occur at any time of the day in addition to morning stiffness. Periods of rest or inactivity may trigger it. The stiffness can make it challenging to move the affected joints.
  • Reduced range of motion: RA can cause a loss of flexibility and reduced range of motion in the affected joints. This limitation can impair daily activities and joint function.
  • Rheumatoid nodules: Some people with RA develop small, firm bumps under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. These nodules usually occur near joints, such as the elbows, fingers, or knees, and are a characteristic feature of RA.
  • Systemic symptoms: RA is not limited to joint involvement. It can also affect other parts of the body, leading to symptoms such as fever, weight loss, and a general feeling of being unwell.

To diagnose RA and other types of inflammatory arthritis, doctors typically use the following:

  • Medical history: A doctor will discuss a person’s symptoms and ask about any family history of arthritis or autoimmune diseases.
  • Physical examination: A doctor will perform a thorough physical examination and assess the joints for swelling, tenderness, warmth, and limited range of motion. They may also check for rheumatoid nodules and evaluate other organ systems.
  • Blood tests: The type of blood test a doctor orders may depend on a person’s symptoms.
  • Imaging studies: X-rays, ultrasounds, or MRI scans may assess joint damage, inflammation, or other characteristic changes associated with various types of inflammatory arthritis, including RA.

The treatment a doctor recommends depends on the type of inflammatory arthritis a person has. However, it may include:

  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): Doctors may prescribe DMARDs as a first-line medication to suppress inflammation, slow disease progression, and preserve joint function.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Corticosteroids: Short-term use of corticosteroids may quickly reduce inflammation during flare-ups.
  • Biologics: These drugs are proteins that doctors inject to target the parts of the immune system that promote inflammation. Doctors may prescribe biologics if DMARDs do not work.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve joint mobility, muscle strength, and overall function.
  • Natural pain relief: Doctors may recommend using heat and ice packs at home. Some people may also find pain relief from practices like acupuncture and massage.
  • Surgery: In cases of severe joint damage or deformity significantly affecting quality of life, doctors may consider joint replacement surgery.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, a person should speak with their doctor if they experience arthritis symptoms for 3 days or more or several times within a month.

A person may also choose to speak with a doctor if the following apply:

  • Joint symptoms interfere with the ability to perform daily activities, such as walking, gripping objects, or doing routine tasks.
  • They have previously experienced joint symptoms that resolved but are now recurring or worsening.
  • They experience systemic symptoms alongside joint problems, such as unexplained fatigue, weight loss, or fever.
  • They have a family history of arthritis or autoimmune diseases and start to have symptoms of arthritis.

Inflammatory arthritis is a chronic condition with no cure. However, advancements in medical understanding, treatment options, and management strategies have significantly improved outcomes for many people.

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for effectively managing inflammatory arthritis.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, treatment can help control inflammation, reduce symptoms, and slow disease progression, helping most people with arthritis to lead a conventional life.

RA is a distinct form of inflammatory arthritis. It mainly targets the joints. Symptoms can include pain, swelling, stiffness, and warmth in and around the joints.

RA is an autoimmune disease leading to chronic inflammation and potential joint damage. It requires early diagnosis and appropriate management to minimize symptoms, preserve joint function, and improve overall well-being.

Doctors use a person’s medical history, physical exams, and various tests to determine whether a person has RA or another type of inflammatory arthritis.