What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic arthritis that can cause significant pain, swelling, stiffness and damage to joints, and can eventually lead to deformity, disability and the need for joint replacement.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune condition, which is when our immune system attacks itself. In the case of Rheumatoid Arthritis, our immune system attacks the ‘synovium’ (inner lining) of our joints, causing inflammation within the joint. What causes the immune system to attack our own body is unknown, but is thought to be a mix of genetic and environmental factors.

What are the symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain and swelling

  • Symmetrical joint pain distribution

  • Small joints usually affected (hands and feet)

  • Morning stiffness

Other symptoms affecting the whole body can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Low grade fever

  • Depression/mood changes

Sometimes, Rheumatoid Arthritis can affect other organs like the lungs, heart and eyes.

How does Rheumatoid Arthritis differ from Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, with Rheumatoid Arthritis being second most common. The most important difference between them is that while Rheumatoid Arthritis is an inflammatory arthritis caused by autoimmune disease, Osteoarthritis is a mechanical arthritis caused by wear and tear. These therefore present themselves in different ways, as summarised below:

Mechanical (Osteoarthritis)

  • Pain worse at the end of the day

  • Large joints affected, asymmetrically (eg knee, hip)

  • Usually one or a few joints affected

  • Usually occurs in older patients

  • Hard, bony swelling of the joint

  • Usually continuous and progressive

Inflammatory (Rheumatoid + others)

  • Pain worse in the morning

  • Small joints affected, often symmetrically (eg hands, feet)

  • Often multiple joints affected

  • Often occurs in middle age

  • Soft, fluid-like swelling of the joint

  • Often episodic (comes and goes)

How is Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosed?

Rheumatoid Arthritis can be diagnosed by your doctor. It can be difficult to diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis because there is no single definitive test, however the diagnosis is likely to be based off your description of symptoms, a physical examination of the affected joints, blood tests and X-rays.

How is Rheumatoid Arthritis treated?

Rheumatoid Arthritis can be managed with a combination of medication and lifestyle measures. Your doctor will prescribe you medication to take when you get flares of arthritis to reduce pain and damage to the joint, as well as DMARDs (Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs) for you to take regularly to prevent the number of flares.

Along with these medications, there are certain lifestyle measures you can take to improve your quality of life with this disease:

  • Keep physically active

  • Stop smoking – There is strong evidence that smoking can exacerbate Rheumatoid Arthritis.

  • Maintain a healthy weight – Obesity can make joint pain related to Rheumatoid Arthritis a lot less bearable and decrease the quality of life for someone suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, feel free to book an appointment with one of our friendly doctors by booking online or contacting us by phone on 8269 6000.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2018, Rheumatoid Arthritis, [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid-arthritis.html (Accessed 4 June 2018)

The Rheumatologist 2008, Patient Fact Sheet: Rheumatoid Arthritis [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.the-rheumatologist.org/article/rheumatoid-arthritis/ (Accessed 4 June 2018)

Rheumatoid Arthritis NZ 2015, Rheumatoid Arthritis Fact Sheet [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ra.org.nz/static/files/RA-Fact-Sheet.pdf (Accessed 4 June 2018)

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