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How does Rheumatoid arthritis affect the joints?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are disorders in which the immune system becomes confused and attacks the body. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. This causes deterioration of the cartilage, bone and ligaments of the joints, causing pain and damage in the joints. Sometimes the immune system may even attack and damage other parts of the body, including blood vessels and parts of the lungs or heart.

Dr. Devi E. Nampiaparampil, MD
Pain Medicine Specialist

People with rheumatoid arthritis can develop joint injury and damage. However, the cause of the injury is different than in osteoarthritis. In rheumatoid arthritis, the body mistakes its own cells for enemy cells (ex. bacteria, cancer cells, etc.). Therefore, it attacks its own cells. The body forms "antibodies" against its own joints, which leads to joint inflammation and damage.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is considered an autoimmune disease. Such diseases are characterized by an immune-system attack on the body's healthy tissues. In RA, white blood cells travel to the synovium (the membranes that surround joints) and cause inflammation, or synovitis. The ensuing warmth, redness, swelling and pain are typical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, which usually affects the wrists, fingers, knees, feet and ankles.

The continuous inflammation associated with RA gradually destroys cartilage, which coats the end of the bones. This narrows the joint space and eventually damages bone. The surrounding muscles, ligaments and tendons that support and stabilize the joint also become weak and unable to work normally.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of joints and surrounding cartilage and bone, resulting in pain, redness, heat, swelling and stiffness. It most often affects the hands, including wrist and finger joints, but RA can attack just about any joint in the body: feet, knees, elbows, hips, shoulders and others.

Dr. Rachel S. Rohde, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

Rheumatoid arthritis affects cells that line and normally lubricate the joints (synovium). This systemic condition can affect multiple joints all over your body. Your synovium becomes inflamed and erodes, or “eats away” cartilage and bone, stretching soft tissues, causing the joints to be unstable and your fingers or hands to appear deformed. Tendons also can rupture, or tear, with minimal trauma. Rheumatoid arthritis of the hand is most common in the wrist and finger knuckles (metacarpophalangeal and proximal interphalangeal joints).

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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.