How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Each Part of the Body

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Pattern of Affected Joints

Man with inflamed knee stretching on pier
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Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune disease. It is an inflammatory type of arthritis which affects the joints. The disease also may have systemic effects, affecting other organs of the body. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include joint pain, joint stiffness, joint inflammation and joint deformity. Fever, malaise, severe fatigue, and morning stiffness lasting more than one hour are also common symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

About 80 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients test positive for rheumatoid factor (detected by a blood test). Approximately 20 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients are classified as having "seronegative rheumatoid arthritis" because they lack rheumatoid factor.

With rheumatoid arthritis, there is a symmetrical pattern of affected joints. For example, both knees of a patient are usually affected rather than one knee.

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Knee Joint


With rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation of the synovial lining causes swelling, pain, redness, warmth, and stiffness of the affected joint. The synovium begins to thicken and inflamed cells release enzymes that digest bone and cartilage. Joint damage and joint deformity may result causing limited range of motion and decreased function of the joint.

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Hip Joint


Any joint can be affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Aggressive disease can reduce the range-of-motion of many joints. When the weightbearing joints are affected, such as the hips, knees, and ankles, mobility may be greatly impacted.

Joint erosion, which is visible on x-ray, can be severe and limiting. As the joint becomes eroded and cartilage is damaged, bone-on-bone can be the painful end result. Severe damage to cartilage, tendons, ligaments and bone can cause joints to become unstable and even deformed as rheumatoid arthritis progresses.

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Hands


Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly begins in the smaller joints of the fingers, hands, and wrists. Rheumatoid arthritis can result in hand deformity, joint problems and damage of the fingers, thumb, hand, and wrist including:

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Systemic Disease


Rheumatoid arthritis not only affects the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease which may also affect other organs of the body including the skin, lungs, heart, and kidneys.

Rheumatoid arthritis is more prevalent in women than men. Interestingly, rheumatoid lung disease occurs more frequently in men who are positive for rheumatoid factor, have subcutaneous nodules, and a long disease course.

Rheumatoid arthritis patients also have a higher risk of coronary heart disease than people in the general population.

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Knee Replacement


Joint damage and deformity can be repaired by knee replacement surgery, which can also reduce pain and restore function. The knee cap is removed and the damaged portion (head) of the femur and tibia are shaved off or resurfaced. The two-part prosthesis (usually metal) is implanted.

Rheumatoid Arthritis - Hip Replacement


Hip replacement surgery can reduce pain, restore function, and correct joint damage and deformity. The hip is a ball (femoral head) and socket (acetabulum) joint. A total hip prosthesis consists of an acetabular component and femoral shaft which are surgically implanted to replace the damaged parts of the hip.

Joint replacements exist for other joints too, such as the shoulder, wrist, and ankle. Knee and hip replacements are most commonly performed. According to the National Institutes of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, about 435,000 Americans have a hip or knee replaced each year.


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Rheumatoid Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology.

Health Topics. Joint Replacement Surgery and You. NIAMS.

Anaya, JM. Pulmonary involvement in rheumatoid arthritis. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism 24(4) Feb 1995 242-54.

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