Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): Treatments, Symptoms, Diagnosis, FAQ


Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, systemic, autoimmune inflammatory disease affecting synovial joints and extra-articular systems, including the skin, eyes, cardiovascular system, bronchopulmonary system, spleen, and nervous system.


Affects 1% of the population
  • Variable onset, but most frequently between the ages of 35 and 50 years
  • Females are affected 2-3 times more frequently than are males.
Risk Factors
  • Genetic predisposition is a risk factor.
  • A higher risk also exists among certain Native American populations.
Family studies indicate a genetic predisposition, although it is multifactorial.
  • T-cell mediated disease of unknown origin
  • Probably a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors causing a systemic autoimmune disorder
Associated Conditions
  • Felty syndrome
  • Chronic rheumatoid arthritis
  • Splenomegaly
  • Neutropenia
  • On occasion, anemia and thrombocytopenia


The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is often complex and requires the integration of history, physical examination, and laboratory studies.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is characteristically bilateral and symmetric.
  • Initial symptoms include swelling and morning stiffness lasting up to 1 hour or more.
  • In 2/3 of patients, symptoms begin with fatigue, anorexia, generalized weakness, and vague musculoskeletal symptoms until synovitis becomes apparent.
  • Pain, swelling, and tenderness are localized to the joints; pain is aggravated by movement.
  • Typically, the wrist and MCP joints are affected 1st, followed by PIP and then DIP involvement.
  • Synovitis of the wrist is an almost uniform feature.
  • An isolated foot problem, such as nonspecific inflammation of forefoot or hind foot, may be the only symptom in early stages of the disease.
  • Extra-articular manifestations include:
    • Rheumatoid nodules
    • Rheumatoid vasculitis
    • Pleuropulmonary disease
    • Neuropathy
    • Pericarditis
    • Osteoporosis
    • Congestive heart failure
  • Deformities of the wrists and hand occur late, after the hypertrophic synovium has destroyed the capsuloligamentous structures.
  • Chronic, progressive deformities of ulnar subluxation occur at the MCP joints.
  • The deformities in the digits are caused by displacement or rupture of the normal tendon anatomy.


The disease often is insidious in onset, with the gradual development of generalized symptoms and joint aches and stiffness.

Physical Exam

  • The presentation of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory arthropathies is variable and subtle.
  • Important aspects on the physical examination include:
    • Joint effusion
    • Boggy synovium
    • Ulnar drift of the fingers
    • Subluxation of the MCP joint
    • Painful, restricted ROM of joints


  • No test is specific for the diagnosis, although serum rheumatoid factor is present in 2/3 of patients.
  • Normochromic, normocytic anemia occurs.
  • Increased ESR and C-reactive protein are seen in nearly all patients.
    • These levels can be followed as a marker of disease progression and the efficacy of therapy.
  • Synovial fluid analysis confirms an inflammatory arthritis, but it is nonspecific.
  • Additional rheumatologic studies, including hepatitis profile, antinucleic antibodies, anti-double-stranded DNA, anti-Smith (and anti-Jo-1 antibodies), also should be analyzed to exclude the possibility of other rheumatologic processes.
  • Imaging is not helpful early in the disease, but, as the disease progresses, loss of articular cartilage, bone erosions, and juxtaarticular osteopenia are seen on roentgenograms of the affected joints.
  • Plain radiographs show subluxed or dislocated MCP or PIP joints.

Pathological Findings

Chronic inflammation of the synovial tissue with subsequent bone and cartilage destruction.
Differential Diagnosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Acute rheumatic fever
  • Ochronosis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica
  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
  • Spondyloarthropathies
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Infectious arthritis

Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis in Singapore

General Measures

  • Early involvement of a rheumatologist can be helpful in making the diagnosis and managing the patient.
  • Management involves an interdisciplinary approach to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and maintain function.
  • Multiple classes of medication may be used alone or in combination to decrease inflammation and help control pain.
  • Surgical treatment should be considered at any time to maximize the treatment.
  • Any patient who may need surgery must have a thorough examination of the cervical spine.
    • The cervical spine is involved in up to 90% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
    • Instability of the cervical spine, including atlantoaxial subluxation and basilar invagination, is a common result of pannus formation, with bone erosion and ligament attenuation.


The patient’s activities should be as-tolerated, and patients are encouraged to have as active a lifestyle as possible.

Special Therapy

Physical Therapy
  • To maintain strength and ROM of affected joints
  • Does not modify the natural history of the disease process

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Additional research is needed to determine if complementary approaches are effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.


  • The goal of medication is to decrease inflammation, preserve joint function, and reduce pain.
  • Many of these medications require careful monitoring of the patient.
First Line
  • NSAIDs
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Methotrexate
Second Line
  • Anti-TNF agents
  • Immunosuppressive medications, such as azathioprine and cyclophosphamide
  • Disease-modifying drugs, such as gold compounds, d-penicillamine, antimalarial agents, and sulfasalazine


  • Synovectomy has been useful in some patients with persistent pain secondary to severe synovitis when no substantial joint destruction is present.
  • Early tenosynovectomy of certain joints prevents tendon rupture.
  • In patients with severely destroyed joints, arthroplasties and total joint replacements have been successful in relieving pain, especially in the hips and knees.
  • Selected fusion in the foot and ankle also is effective in relieving pain and in improving walking ability.
  • Treatment of rheumatoid hand disorders is complex and involves realignment, arthroplasty, tendon repair, and fusion.



Issues for Referral
  • A multidisciplinary approach to the patient should be used.
    • In addition to the patient’s primary physician, rheumatology and orthopaedics should be involved, as well as other specialties as needed.
  • No cure exists for rheumatoid arthritis; the goal is management and delay of disease progression.
  • Some surgical treatment (e.g., synovectomy in the upper extremity) can slow the progression of disease.
  • Fluctuating disease activity makes prediction of disease behavior difficult.
  • At 10-12 years after diagnosis, <20% of patients have no evidence of disability or deformity
  • Median life expectancy is shortened by 3-7 years.
  • Variable, depending on the treatment chosen
  • A complication of newer TNF inhibitors is serious infection.
Patient Monitoring
  • Monitoring occurs on an individual basis and also depends on treatment.
  • Several medications used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis require close monitoring.


714.0 Rheumatoid arthritis
Patient Teaching
It is important for the patient to understand the nature of this disease and the treatment options.
Patients should continue with their normal activities as much as can be tolerated.
Careful observation of symptoms and adherence to treatment regimens can help prevent flare-ups.


Q: Is there a cure for rheumatoid arthritis?
A: No, but disease progression can be controlled with medications.
Q: What medications will I be taking?
A: Anti-inflammatory medications are the mainstay of treatment. Glucocorticoids and methotrexate also are commonly used. Additional medications may be used as indicated.
Q: What can I do to help prevent progression of the disease?
A: Compliance with prescribed medications helps to reduce inflammation and prevent disease progression. Physical therapy and exercise help preserve joint motion and overall health.
Q: Is my family at increased risk of the disease?
A: An increased incidence of rheumatoid arthritis occurs in families, but this fact does not guarantee that individual family members will develop the disease.
Q: My rheumatoid factor is negative. What does that mean?
A: Although a positive rheumatoid factor is common, it is absent in 10-15% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In such patients, the diagnosis is made on the basis of the clinical examination.


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