What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:05 A Really Bad Form of Arthritis
  • 0:27 What is Rhuematoid Arthritis?
  • 1:07 Causes
  • 3:01 Signs, Symptoms, and…
  • 5:07 Treatment
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson explores a very common and well-known form of inflammatory arthritis called rheumatoid arthritis. We'll discuss why it occurs, how it can be diagnosed, how it differs from osteoarthritis, and how it can be treated.

A Really Bad Form of Arthritis

You've surely heard of something known as arthritis. In short, it's the inflammation of the joints. It's painful and can be caused by all sorts of things, ranging from autoimmune diseases to injuries and infections. However, one of the absolute worst forms of arthritis you can get - one that's extremely painful and even disfiguring - will be discussed in this lesson.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

This specific form of arthritis is called rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, for short. This is an autoimmune disorder that can commonly affect the joints of the hands and feet. While genetics seem to play a role in the development of this condition, other things may cause you to be more likely to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. For instance, smoking has been shown to more than double the chances you'll get this disease. Another risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis is your sex. It seems that women are two to three times more likely to develop this condition than men, although the exact reason for this is unclear.


What we do know about RA is that there are antibodies that trigger an inflammatory response by reacting and attaching to an individual's own body's proteins. These antibodies are called autoantibodies. They are produced by cells of your immune system known as B-cells, which are in turn activated by T-cells. ACPA and rheumatoid factor are two types of autoantibodies commonly detected in the blood of rheumatoid arthritis patients.

The autoantibodies trigger the inflammatory response to occur wherever they lodge or attach to. In our case, the place that is most affected by these autoantibodies initially is the synovial membrane of a joint. The synovial membrane is a thin membrane that combines with the fibrous membrane to form the joint capsule. A joint capsule is a sac composed of the fibrous and synovial membranes that surround a joint.

So, again, once these autoantibodies attach, they trigger the process of inflammation which first damages the synovial membrane and then the cartilage of the joint itself, resulting in very painful erosions of the cartilage and the disfigurement of the joint. Usually, antibodies are supposed to do you good. They are launched by your body to try and fight off a foreign invader. But sometimes, be it due to genetics, infections, drugs, and so forth, autoantibodies are produced instead.

You can essentially liken the autoantibodies to a heat-seeking missile. It may have been launched against an enemy plane, but got diverted and shot down a friendly plane instead, causing a fiery explosion that we know as inflammation. The fire causes the destruction of anything it comes into contact with, including your joints.

Clinical Signs, Symptoms, and Diagnostics

This inflammatory process causes the typical signs associated with RA:

  • Warm, tender, and swollen joints
  • Pain
  • Rheumatoid nodules, which are swellings, with centers of decaying tissue, that are located underneath the skin overlying a joint as a result of the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Fatigue and fever
  • Heart problems

When diagnosing RA, there's an important consideration. You need to be able to distinguish osteoarthritis from rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative arthritis that occurs when wear and tear leads to deterioration of cartilage and overgrowth of bone. Rheumatoid arthritis is the inflammation of a joint's tissues, which eventually leads to the destruction of cartilage.

In fact, let's play a game of doctor. You can be the doctor. Read off the list, and make a diagnosis by comparing the two different forms of arthritis that may be occurring in your patient.

So in rheumatoid arthritis:

  • It may occur at any time in a person's life
  • Causes systemic signs, such as fever, fatigue, and heart problems
  • Affects joints on both sides of the body at the same time
  • Causes joint changes more quickly, within a matter of months
  • Joints are more swollen than in osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis, compared to RA:

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