Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that causes pain and swelling in the joints.  Autoimmune means that your body’s own immune system has started to malfunction and is starting to attack YOU, for example at your joints.  Your immune system is designed to defend your body against infection. It should not attack your body. Sometimes the immune system becomes too active, and mistakenly attacks your body, and this is called ‘autoimmune’ disease.

Image showing autoimmune cells

In RA Hands, feet and wrists are commonly affected, but it can also damage other parts of the body. Currently, rheumatoid arthritis cannot be prevented as the exact trigger of the condition is unknown.

When you have RA, your immune system attacks the lining of your joints (the synovial lining).  This causes inflammation, which leads to symptoms such as pain, swelling and stiffness.

Image of someone's toes

What are the symptoms?

Rheumatoid arthritis can make your joints swell, feel stiff and leave you feeling generally unwell and tired. Symptoms usually vary over time, and range from mild to severe. The condition can sometimes be very painful, making movement and everyday tasks difficult. When symptoms become worse, this is known as a flare-up or flare. A flare is impossible to predict, making rheumatoid arthritis difficult to live with.  But once you have received your diagnosis, you will be working closely with the rheumatology team to help manage the disease and hopefully reducing or limiting these flares.

Who is affected?

The condition is estimated to affect over 580,000 people in England and Wales and occurs more frequently in women than men. It is most common between the ages of 40 and 70, but can affect people of any age including children.

Why does it happen?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, which is often very frustrating for those who are diagnosed with RA. We know how the condition attacks the joints, but it is not yet known what triggers the initial attack. It is thought that viruses and bacteria may be involved but research is not yet conclusive.

Virus cells

Genetic susceptibility

There is some evidence that rheumatoid arthritis can run in families and genes may be one factor in the cause of the condition. However, having a family member with rheumatoid arthritis does not necessarily mean you will inherit the condition. Genes only explain part of the risk. For example the identical twin of someone with rheumatoid arthritis only has a one in five chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis too.


Rheumatoid arthritis is three times more common in women than in men. It is thought that this may be due to the effects of oestrogen (a female hormone) and that this hormone may be involved in the development and progression of the condition. However, this has not been conclusively proven.

Lifestyle factors

Although not a direct cause of rheumatoid arthritis, there is some evidence to show smokers and those exposed to inhaled fumes/chemicals are more likely to develop the condition. People who regularly drink more than the recommended maximum daily limit of alcohol are also at higher risk.

For more information on drinking and alcohol click here 

For information on rheumatoid arthritis and smoking click here 

Have I got Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Have you got the ‘S’ Factor?

  • stiffness – early morning joint stiffness lasting more than 30 minutes
  • swelling – persistent swelling of one joint or more, especially hand joints
  • squeezing – squeezing the joints is painful in inflammatory arthritis

If you have any of these S’s it’s possible that you may have early rheumatoid arthritis so it is essential that you see your GP as soon as possible.

The following link is a patient story which demonstrates an extreme case, but shows you why early diagnosis is so important:  http://www.nras.org.uk/early-diagnosis

If you already have a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, and would like further support with your condition, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society offers many services which are free to access.

Just click on this link:  https://nras.org.uk/get-support/

For more general information on rheumatoid arthritis you may find these sites helpful: 
NHS website
Versus Arthritis website
National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society website