Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA for short) is a common form of arthritis and one of the most common types of connective tissue disorders. Over two million Americans live with RA. Out of this number, one and a half million are women: RA affects three times as many women as men. Worldwide, an estimated one out of every hundred people suffers from this often-debilitating condition.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an inflammation of the synovium, the membrane that lines the joints. This inflammation causes the joint lining to thicken and produce excessive amounts of synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is a lubricant that cushions and protects the joints during movement. Tissue inflammation and synovial fluid build-up cause joint pain, stiffness and swelling. The skin over affected joints may also appear red.

The inflamed synovium produces enzymes that can travel through the synovial fluid and attack bone and cartilage. Unlike other forms of arthritis, the effects RA are not limited to the joints, and many other problems may arise throughout the body. Over time, joint pain worsens, and joints may become deformed. Early treatment can slow the degenerative process and medications can provide some relief.

Osteoarthritis and RA: How Do They Differ?

Osteoarthritis and RA are very different forms of arthritis, but are often confused. Rheumatoid arthritis damage is caused by inflammation and enzyme action. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between bones breaks down, allowing the bones to rub against each other. This "wear and tear" causes joint deterioration and pain. Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect internal organs, osteoarthritis is confined to the joints.

Getting the Facts

This site provides an introduction to rheumatoid arthritis. Here you can learn about symptoms, and how the disease is diagnosed. You can discover what research has discovered about possible causes of RA, and what risks are associated with the disease. Finally, many popular misconceptions about the condition are divulged: you can learn the truth about the more common myths.

Recent Research: Are Carbohydrates to Blame?

The exact cause of RA remains a mystery, but current research suggests that the body's immune system may be reacting to certain types of carbohydrates normally found in the body. These carbohydrates, called glycosaminoglycans (GAG) are found naturally in cartilage and connective tissues. Immune cells may be accidentally targeting these GAG carbohydrates and attempting to destroy them (auto-immunity). This buildup of immune cells could be the cause of the inflammation.