Skip to Content

Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects more than 1.3 million people in the U.S.

It's the most common type of autoimmune arthritis (arthritis caused by your immune system rather than mechanical wear-and-tear).

RA causes joint pain and stiffness and greatly affects your quality of life. Daily activities can be painful, especially when symptoms flare.

If you have or think you may have RA, it's vital to see a rheumatologist.

Learn more about:

Looking for RA Care?

Contact UPMC Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology

Call 1-888-349-1506 to make an appointment at a UPMC rheumatology location near you.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA is an autoimmune disorder where your own immune system attacks normal tissues such as the joints.

In the joints, RA causes:

  • Inflammation.
  • Pain in your joints.
  • Stiffness.

RA can also affect other organs.

While anyone can get RA, about 75% are women. Most people get a diagnosis between the ages of 30 and 60.

RA tends to affect the same joints on both sides of the body at the same time.

It's most common for RA to affect the following joints:
  • Feet and ankles.
  • Hands and fingers.
  • Knees.
  • Wrists.

RA is a chronic issue disease, which means that it stays with you over time. Symptoms are sometimes better and other times worse.

The inflammation in RA can hurt your lungs, blood vessels, heart, and spine. This is why it's crucial to have routine follow-up care with a rheumatologist.

Back to top

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

We don't know the exact cause of RA.

Experts who study it have found that a mix of factors may trigger RA.

Common risk factors include:

  • Environment. Things that happen to you (like getting a virus) and things you do (like smoking) may trigger RA. Experts have also linked RA to health issues like gum disease and lung disease.
  • Genes. Genes that affect the immune system might put some, but not all, people at risk of getting RA. So, genes are only part of the puzzle.
  • Sex hormones. People born as female are more likely to get RA than people born as male. Pregnancy may affect how severe RA is (symptoms may improve during pregnancy but worsen after).

What Are the Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA can cause chronic pain and trouble with movement, balance, and daily tasks.

It can also lead to other problems, such as:

  • Diabetes (if you're on long-term steroids).
  • Heart disease.
  • Work issues. People with physically demanding jobs often lose days of work.
Back to top

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Sudden worsening of RA is known as a flare.

Symptoms during an RA flare can include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Joint swelling and tenderness to touch.
  • Pain and stiffness in more than one joint.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
Back to top

How Do You Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis?

To diagnose RA, your doctor will:

  • Take your health history.
  • Do a physical exam.
  • Order lab tests and x-rays.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis and other rheumatic illnesses that can involve the joints.

Other health issues that may impact the joints include:

  • Gout.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Lupus.
  • Psoriatic arthritis.
Back to top

What Are the Treatment Options for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Your doctor will talk to you about which type of medicine is the best option for you.

We aim to help you manage symptoms while slowing the disease and preventing lasting joint damage.

We may use the following medicines alone or together:

Anti-inflammatory medicines for RA

These drugs reduce pain and inflammation and include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.
  • COX-2 inhibitors (Celebrex®).


These drugs quickly reduce inflammation and include:

  • Prednisone.
  • Prednisolone.
  • Methylprednisolone (SOLU-MEDROL®).


This stands for "disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs."

These drugs slowly change the course of the disease and include:

  • Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil®).
  • Azathioprine (Imuran®).
  • Leflunomide (Arava®).
  • Methotrexate (Rheumatrex®).
  • Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine®).

Biologic agents

These drugs help with inflammation and also act as DMARDs.

Biologic agents include:

  • Adalimumab (Humira®).
  • Anakinra (Kineret®).
  • Certolizumab (Cimzia®).
  • Etanercept (Enbrel®).
  • Golimumab (Simponi®).
  • Infliximab (Remicade®).
  • Rituximab (Rituxan®).
  • Tocilizumab (Actemra®).
  • Abatacept (Orencia®).

Non-drug RA treatments

Other types of therapy besides medicine can help people with RA. Physical therapy can help improve mobility and flexibility while helping you get stronger.

It's vital to talk to your doctor about self-management strategies for RA.

These include:

  • Being active.
  • Staying at a healthy weight.
  • Working to protect your joints.
Back to top