Rheumatoid arthritis affects between 2 and 3 percent of the population. It is less common and often more disabling than osteoarthritis. Women are affected three times more than men. Although it most commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 40, it can begin at any age. In childhood it is called juvenile onset rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in the general family of lupus. For reasons that are not understood, in rheumatoid arthritis the immune system goes awry and begins attacking innocent tissues, especially cartilage in the joints. Various joints become red, hot, and swollen under the onslaught. The pattern of inflammation is usually symmetrical, occurring on both sides of the body. Other symptoms include inflammation of the eyes, nodules or lumps under the skin, and a general feeling of malaise.
The joint damage caused by RA begins with an inflammation of the synovial membrane. This leads to thickening of the membrane resulting from the overgrowth of synovial cells and an accumulation of white blood cells. The release of enzymes and other substances by these cells erodes the cartilage that lines the joints, as well as the bones, tendons, and ligaments within the joint capsule. As the disease progresses, the production of excess fibrous tissue limits joint motion.
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