What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA) ? Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic and often painful disease affecting the joints, causing them to become inflamed. An inflamed joint looks swollen and red, and appears warm to touch. This inflammation can lead to permanent damage in the joints if the disease is not treated. What happens in rheumatoid arthritis? In rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy organs and tissue as foreign ‘invaders’. This is why rheumatoid arthritis is known as an autoimmune disease. The disease usually starts in the wrists, hands or feet, and can spread to other joints and other parts of the body. How many people in Ireland are affected with rheumatoid arthritis? Rheumatoid arthritis is a fairly common disease; 40,000 people have the condition in Ireland. It affects three times more women than men. Most people develop rheumatoid arthritis between the ages of 25-50. What causes rheumatoid arthritis? The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is still unknown. Scientists are trying to learn why the immune system attacks healthy body tissues. It is thought that certain genes and environmental factors may trigger the development of the disease. Symptoms Rheumatoid arthritis can affect all joints in the body. The joints in your hands and feet are often the first joints to be affected. There may be pain in the same joints on both sides of the body – if the knuckles in the right hand are affected then the knuckles in the left hand may also be affected. Fatigue and a feeling of weakness often accompany joint pain. People may experience morning stiffness or pain in the joints all night. Along with painful inflamed joints, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect other body tissues and organs. Sometimes people will develop lumps under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. Inflammation can on rare occasions affect the membranes of the lung and heart. Psoriatic arthritis, a skin condition, can also occur. Symptoms vary from person to person and vary over time. In some people the disease will be mild with periods of activity or joint inflammation called flare-ups but will be inactive a lot of the time (known as remission). Unfortunately, for others, rheumatoid arthritis may become worse over time, causing more extensive damage to the joints. Diagnosis The earlier the diagnosis the quicker treatment can begin. Diagnosis is made on the basis of a combination of inflammation and pain history, physical examination and also by blood tests and x-rays. To confirm a diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a hospital specialist – a rheumatologist. Treatment There is unfortunately no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. However, there are many medications available to ease joint pain and to help limit the damage caused by the condition. More treatments are being developed. People with rheumatoid arthritis are encouraged to self-manage their condition by exercising regularly, protecting their joints, eating healthily, and by using any relaxation techniques they find helpful. Other healthcare professionals such as occupational therapists and physiotherapists are often involved in supporting those with rheumatoid arthritis. Surgery is only used in severe cases of rheumatoid arthritis where the individual has severe disability or pain.