Rheumatoid Arthritis

You have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This is a chronic disease that mainly affects the joints. Sometimes, it also affects other parts of the body. RA is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body’s immune system, which normally protects the body, causes harm instead. With RA, the immune system attacks the joints and other parts of the body. The reason for this is unknown.

In most cases, RA affects pairs of joints on both sides of the body. These can include joints in both elbows, wrists, hands, knees, feet, or ankles. The disease often starts slowly. Early symptoms include stiffness, muscle aches, weakness, and fatigue. Over time, the joints may start to hurt. They may also become warm, swollen, or tender. Symptoms may feel worse in the morning after a night’s rest and may get better with activity.

With RA, you may have periods of active disease (when symptoms worsen). This may be followed by periods of remission (when symptoms improve or go away). There is no known cure for RA. But medical treatment can slow or stop the progress of the disease. It can also help relieve symptoms. For advanced disease, surgery, such as joint replacement, may be the best option.

Home care

  • If you were prescribed a medicine, take it as directed.

  • To help control swelling and pain, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or another NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) may be recommended. Note: If you have chronic liver or kidney disease or ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, tell your healthcare provider before taking any of these medicines.

  • Some persons find relief with heat (hot shower, hot bath, or heating pad). Others prefer cold (ice in a plastic bag, wrapped in a towel). Try both. Then use the method you like best. Use heat or cold for about 20 minutes, a few times a day.

  • Exercise is a key part of treatment for RA. It helps reduce pain. It may also improve flexibility. Do your best to be active daily. Move your joints through their full range of motion each morning. Don't stay in the same position for long periods of time. Take breaks throughout the day and move around. Talk with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program. Also, ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist what exercises are best for you.

  • If you are overweight, ask your provider for resources that can help you lose weight. Extra weight puts stress on your joints.

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking raises the risk of other problems linked to RA and also may affect how well certain medicines work. Your provider can give you smoking cessation resources.

  • No herbal product or nutritional supplement has been proven to help RA. But treatments such as acupuncture and massage may help ease pain.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider or occupational therapist about easier ways to do daily tasks. This may include the use of assistive devices. These are special tools that can help with things like dressing, bathing, cooking, driving, and moving or getting around.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. 

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Increasing weakness, pale color of the skin, fainting

  • Chest pain or shortness of breath

  • Blood in vomit or stool (black or red color)

  • Changes in vision

  • Skin ulcers

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • New or worsening joint pain

  • New rash

To learn more

To learn more about RA, contact:

  • Arthritis Foundation, 404-872-7100, www.arthritis.org

  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), www.niams.nih.gov

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