What is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a long term autoimmune condition. The immune system usually protects the body from infection and disease but in autoimmune conditions, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body tissue. In RA, the immune system primarily attacks joints and causes inflammation. This leads to pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints. These symptoms usually affect the hands, feet and wrists. RA is symmetric meaning it usually affects the same joints on both sides of the body in the same way and to the same extent.
RA is a systemic disease and so it is not always limited to the joints. RA can affect the whole body, including organs such as the eyes, lungs and heart. There can also be more general symptoms such as tiredness and weight loss.
If RA is not treated, it can cause severe damage to the joints which leads to disability. If the disease is properly treated and managed, however, the number of flares can be decreased and the long term damage of joints can be prevented.
What are the causes of RA?
It is not yet known exactly what triggers the inflammation associated with RA. It is thought to be a combination of factors which may include:
- Genetic background – there’s some evidence that family history could play a role in developing the disease but RA is not solely due to genetic influence
- Smoking – there is evidence to suggest that smoking can increase the risk of developing RA
- Hormonal influence – as RA is more common in women, there may be a hormonal role in the condition, however, this has not been proven.