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What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

While the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, there are some known contributing factors. Doctors believe that there is a genetic link, which means that if your parents have rheumatoid arthritis, you are more likely to get it. It is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system attacks the body -- in this case the lining of the joints. An infection may cause the start of rheumatoid arthritis in someone who is already predisposed to it.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is considered an autoimmune disease. Such diseases are characterized by an immune-system attack on the body's healthy tissues.

Although no one knows the causes of rheumatoid arthritis, it seems to develop as a result of an interaction of several factors, including genetics, environment, and hormones.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) develops when part of the immune system, which is supposed to protect you from outside invaders, instead attacks your joints. It's not fully understood what causes the immune system to malfunction in this way, but RA is believed to be influenced by a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors. The main risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis are:
  • Your genes. People with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to develop it themselves, and susceptibility to this disease has been traced to specific genes. But not everyone with a genetic predisposition gets RA, which suggests there may be other causes of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Your environment. Environmental triggers may help set off rheumatoid arthritis in people who already have a genetic susceptibility. Research suggests a viral or bacterial infection is the most likely trigger, but other environmental factors that may play a part include prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke and/or silica dust.
  • Gender. Although being a woman doesn’t cause rheumatoid arthritis, your gender can be a significant risk factor. Women are two to three times more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis. The reason for this is unclear, although there's some evidence that hormones -- particularly estrogens -- may play a role in RA.
  • Age. Rheumatoid arthritis usually begins between the ages of 30 and 60, but it can develop at any time.
  • Smoking. Smoking -- and exposure to secondhand smoke – is among the top rheumatoid arthritis risk factors. It may also increase the severity of the disease.
  • Ethnicity. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs in people of all ethnicities, but some American Indian and Alaskan Native populations have a significantly higher incidence of RA than other ethnic groups.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.