Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. Research suggests it affects up to 1% of the global population.
The above statistic comes from a
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that causes joint pain, swelling, and inflammation. Read on to learn about the prevalence of RA, its causes, risk factors, symptoms, and more.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, RA is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis.
The Arthritis Foundation (AF) estimates that the global prevalence of RA is 0.5 to 1% in developed countries. A 2020 review found that the prevalence of RA in the Middle East and Africa ranged from 0.06 to 3.4%.
RA occurs more frequently in females than in males. Around 75% of people with RA are female.
Although RA can affect people of any age, it generally develops when a person is 30–50 years old.
Normally, a person’s immune system helps protect them from infection and diseases. Autoimmune conditions can cause a person’s immune system to mistake healthy cells for foreign invaders. This results in the immune system attacking healthy cells, leading to inflammation.
RA is an autoimmune condition. When a person has RA, their immune system attacks the synovium of their joints. The synovium is the tissue that lines a joint. It produces synovial fluid, which lubricates a person’s joints and helps them move smoothly.
The synovium becomes thick and inflamed during an episode of RA. This can cause pain and difficulty moving.
The exact cause of RA is
According to the
- older age
- being female
- certain inherited genes
- smoking cigarettes
- never having given birth
- environmental factors, such as having a mother who smoked or coming from a low income background
- having obesity
A person with RA may find their symptoms come and go. When a person is experiencing RA symptoms, it is called a flare.
RA causes symptoms to occur in more than one joint. Additionally, a person with RA may find it affects the same joints on both sides of their body. For example, it may affect both knees or wrists.
RA generally develops in small joints, such as wrist or finger bones. It can also affect other areas such as the eyes, skin, or lungs.
Symptoms of RA can include:
- joint pain, stiffness, tenderness, or swelling that lasts 6 weeks or more
- morning joint stiffness that lasts at least 30 minutes
- minor fever
- weight loss
- hard lumps under the skin in areas such as the hands or elbows
Having RA can put a person at risk of developing additional health complications, including:
Painful joints can make it difficult to move around or exercise. This can cause unintended weight gain and lead a person to develop obesity.
According to the AF, RA almost doubles a person’s chances of developing heart disease. Obesity and certain drugs used to treat RA can also increase a person’s blood pressure.
RA can cause inflammation of the blood vessels, known as rheumatoid vasculitis. This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, which can cause blood pressure to rise.
Learn more about high blood pressure here.
The AF notes that lung-related complications are the most common symptom of RA after joint-related symptoms. They estimate that 1 in 10 people with RA will also develop interstitial lung disease (ILD).
RA-associated ILD occurs when scarring develops on a person’s lung tissue. This scarring is a result of the immune system attacking healthy lung tissue.
ILD can lead a person to have trouble breathing. They may require a lung transplant to regain breathing function.
Other lung issues RA causes include:
- pulmonary nodules, which are small lumps that grow inside the lungs
- pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid between the chest wall and the lungs
- bronchiectasis, a widening of the airways
Other health issues that can occur due to RA include:
- metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure
- painful, dry, red eyes
- eye inflammation
- difficulty seeing
- sensitivity to light
- dry mouth
- gum infections, irritation, or inflammation
Doctors recommend medications and self-management treatment for RA. These include:
- disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- biological response modifiers or biologicals
- eating a balanced, nutritious diet
- daily movement, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going for a short walk
- remembering to rest and take breaks
- using hot and cold treatments, such as warm baths or placing an ice pack on swollen joints
- topical treatments such as creams or gels to soothe joint pain
- stopping smoking, if applicable
- reaching and maintaining a moderate weight
- talking with a doctor about taking supplements such as turmeric and omega-3 fish oil
Read about traditional versus biologic DMARDs for treating RA here.
A person should talk with a doctor if they have:
- joint symptoms that last 3 days or more
- several episodes of joint symptoms within a month
- joint issues that are causing them concern
A doctor can advise the person about the treatment options most suitable for them.
A person should also talk with a doctor if they have any concerning symptoms alongside their RA. Symptoms such as difficulty breathing or high blood pressure may indicate additional health issues.
There is currently no cure for RA. The outlook for a person with RA can depend on certain factors, such as:
- the progression of the condition
- whether they smoke
- whether they have obesity
According to the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network, a person with RA may have a life expectancy that is 10–15 years shorter than a person without the condition. However, they say a person with RA can live into their eighties or nineties.
RA-related deaths generally occur due to additional health complications that develop as a result of the condition. More than half of RA-related deaths are due to heart disease and cardiovascular issues.
RA is an autoimmune condition. It is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis, affecting more than 1.3 million people in the U.S.
Although the exact cause of RA is unknown, risk factors for the disease include a person’s sex, age, and inherited genes.
Having RA can make a person more likely to develop certain health complications, such as heart or lung disease. Generally, RA-related deaths result from complications that develop due to the condition.
If a person has symptoms of RA, they should talk with a doctor.