Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a progressive disease, meaning that without appropriate treatment, joint damage and disability will worsen as time passes. Sometimes, people with RA experience periods of relief or remission from RA symptoms, but the symptoms often return and the number of joints affected almost always eventually increases from when symptoms first appeared. That's why it is important to get diagnosed and to start early discussions about a treatment plan with your doctor or rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in arthritic conditions like RA). It is also important to monitor your progress and continue your recommended therapy over the long term.
RA is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are ones where the body's own tissues are viewed as foreign and are attacked by its own immune system. This causes inflammation, so RA is often called an inflammatory disease. Other inflammatory diseases include ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn's disease, and psoriatic arthritis.
The exact cause of RA and why the immune system attacks the body's own healthy tissues is unknown, but some of the possible causes of RA proposed by scientists include the following:
When inflammation is allowed to progress and persist, the result is destruction of nearby cartilage, bone, tendons, and ligaments. Within the joint, the bone wears away and becomes more damaged and fragile. The space between the bones gets narrower and the tendons holding the bones together loosen. This can result in deformity of the joints as well as disability. Unfortunately, once the process begins, noticeable joint damage can occur very quickly, even as early as 4 months, and may be permanent.
Taking control of the disease means finding ways to slow the progression of joint damage. Even if you are feeling better with your RA treatment, the disease may still be progressing. There are ways for you and your doctor to see if your RA is progressing. See "Impact of RA" for more information.
Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the symptoms of RA, and slow down damage to joints. Successful management of RA means living your life the way you want to.
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