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Arthritis health centre

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


Rheumatoid arthritis makes your joints swollen and painful. If you have this condition, you may worry that you will always be in pain and that you will stop being able to do simple things like getting dressed. You may also worry about how your joints look.

But there are treatments that help many people with this condition lead active lives. It's best to start taking these treatments soon after you're diagnosed. They can ease your pain and may help to stop your joints wearing down.

We've brought together the best research about rheumatoid arthritis and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your joints become painful, stiff and swollen. For some people, their symptoms come and go. But for others, their symptoms slowly get worse over many years.

You may worry about being in pain. You may also worry that your joints will become so damaged that you'll have to stop working. And you may be concerned about how your joints look.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are treatments that can ease your pain and prevent your joints from wearing down. These treatments help many people with rheumatoid arthritis live active and happy lives.

Key points for people with rheumatoid arthritis

  • In rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system, which normally fights infection, attacks the lining of your joints. This makes your joints swollen, stiff, and painful.

  • The small joints of your hands or feet are usually affected first.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects similar joints on both sides of your body.

  • It is most common after the age of 40.

  • Doctors can sometimes find it difficult to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis because it often starts slowly.

  • It's important to start treatments early to prevent your joints wearing down.

Your joints

To understand how rheumatoid arthritis affects you, it helps to know something about your joints.

A joint is where two bones meet.


  • On the outside of a joint are the ligaments. They are strong fibres that keep the bones in place. The fibres around a joint are called the joint capsule.

  • Inside the joint capsule is the lining of the joint. Doctors call it the synovial membrane. This lining makes a fluid called synovial fluid that keeps the joint moving smoothly, much like oil in a car engine.

  • The ends of bones in the joint are covered with cartilage. This material is hard and slippery and makes the ends of the bones smooth so that they can move easily.

Last Updated: August 15, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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