Our grateful thanks to Clare Jacklin, CEO of NRAS for her contribution to our radio report, which you can hear again, via the audio player at the bottom of this page. Click here to connect through to the charity.
Grateful thanks also to the NHS for the use of the support informatione below.
Rheumatoid arthritis is, the NHS tells us, "a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. The condition usually affects the hands, feet and wrists.
There may be periods where symptoms become worse, known as flare-ups or flares.
A flare can be difficult to predict, but with treatment it's possible to decrease the number of flares and minimise or prevent long-term damage to the joints.
Some people with rheumatoid arthritis also experience problems in other parts of the body, or more general symptoms such as tiredness and weight loss.
The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are joint pain, swelling and stiffness. It may also cause more general symptoms, and inflammation in other parts of the body.
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis often develop gradually over several weeks, but some cases can progress quickly over a number of days.
The symptoms vary from person to person. They may come and go, or change over time. You may experience flares when your condition deteriorates and your symptoms become worse.
Symptoms affecting the joints: Rheumatoid arthritis mainly affects the joints. It can cause problems in any joint in the body, although the small joints in the hands and feet are often the first to be affected.
Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects the joints symmetrically (both sides of the body at the same time and to the same extent), but this is not always the case.
Pain. The joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis is usually a throbbing and aching pain. It is often worse in the mornings and after a period of inactivity.
Stiffness. Joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis can feel stiff. For example, if your hands are affected, you may not be able to fully bend your fingers or form a fist.
Like joint pain, the stiffness is often worse in the morning or after a period of inactivity.
Morning stiffness that is a symptom of another type of arthritis, called osteoarthritis, usually wears off within 30 minutes of getting up, but morning stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis often lasts longer than this.
Swelling, warmth and redness. The lining of joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis become inflamed, which can cause the joints to swell, and become hot and tender to touch.
In some people, firm swellings called rheumatoid nodules can also develop under the skin around affected joints.
Additional symptoms. As well as problems affecting the joints, some people with rheumatoid arthritis have more general symptoms, such as:
The inflammation that's part of rheumatoid arthritis can also sometimes cause problems in other areas of the body, such as:
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, which means it's caused by the immune system attacking healthy body tissue. However, it's not yet known what triggers this.
Your immune system normally makes antibodies that attack bacteria and viruses, helping to fight infection.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system mistakenly sends antibodies to the lining of your joints, where they attack the tissue surrounding the joint.
This causes the thin layer of cells (synovium) covering your joints to become sore and inflamed, releasing chemicals that damage nearby:
If rheumatoid arthritis is not treated, these chemicals gradually cause the joint to lose its shape and alignment. Eventually, it can destroy the joint completely.
Various theories of why the immune system attacks the joints have been suggested, such as an infection being a trigger, but none of these theories has been proven.
Possible risk factors. There are several things that may increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, including:
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because many conditions cause joint stiffness and inflammation and there's no definitive test for the condition.
See a GP if you have these symptoms so they can try to determine the cause.
Seeing a GP. A GP will do a physical examination, checking your joints for any swelling and to assess how easily they move. The GP will also ask you about your symptoms.
It's important to tell the GP about all your symptoms, not just ones you think are important, as this will help them make the correct diagnosis.
If the GP thinks you have rheumatoid arthritis, they'll refer you to a specialist (rheumatologist).
Blood tests. The GP may arrange blood tests to help confirm the diagnosis.
No blood test can definitively prove or rule out a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, but several tests can show indications of the condition.
The full blood count test can also be used to check if you have anaemia. Anaemia means the blood is unable to carry enough oxygen because of a lack of blood cells.
Anaemia is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis, although having anaemia does not prove you have rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP antibodies. One blood test measures levels of rheumatoid factors in the blood. Rheumatoid factors are proteins that the immune system produces when it attacks health tissue.
About half of all people with rheumatoid arthritis have high levels of rheumatoid factors in their blood when the disease starts, but about 1 in 20 people without rheumatoid arthritis also test positive.
A related blood test known as anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) test is also available. Anti-CCPs are antibodies also produced by the immune system.
People who test positive for anti-CCP are very likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, but not everybody with rheumatoid arthritis has this antibody.
Those who test positive for both rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP may be more likely to have severe rheumatoid arthritis requiring higher levels of treatment.
Joint scans. Scans may be done to check for joint inflammation and damage.
These can help tell the difference between types of arthritis and can be used to monitor how your condition is progressing over time.
Scans that may be done to diagnose and monitor rheumatoid arthritis include:
Assessing your physical ability. If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, your specialist will do an assessment to see how well you're coping with everyday tasks.
You may be asked to fill in a questionnaire on how well you can do things like dress, walk and eat, and how good your grip strength is.
This assessment may be repeated after your treatment, to see if you have made any improvements."
Listen to this weeks radio report
All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.