What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The ancient Greeks were aware that joint and muscle aches were sometimes associated with colds. The word rheuma in Greek means “flow” or “discharge,” where this “flow” refers to the watery discharge from the eyes and nose during a cold. The word Arthritis is also derived from the Greek—specifically, from arthron (or arthr-), meaning “joint,” and itis, meaning “inflammation.” Thus rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was originally thought to be a disease that resulted in painful and swollen joints and that was caused by a cold.


Inflammation of a joint, usually accompanied by pain, swelling, and stiffness.


A prefix meaning “joint.”

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

A chronic autoimmune disease characterized by pain, stiffness, inflammation, swelling, and sometimes destruction of joints.

Today, RA is still a description for a medical condition that is characterized by painful inflamed joints, but the association with watery eyes and runny noses has been discarded by modern physicians. RA is currently understood to be a systemic inflammatory disease that affects the joints and other tissues in the body. It is both chronic and progressive.


An adjective used in medicine to indicate something that affects the entire body, rather than a single part or organ.


Lasting for a long time. The word comes from the Greek chronos, which means “time.”


An adjective applied to many diseases; it suggests an increase in scope or severity of disease.

When doctors describe rheumatoid arthritis as a Chronic Illness, they mean that it can last for years. In some patients, disease activity may be characterized by frequent flares. Other patients may go for long periods without any symptoms at all. For the majority of patients, however, RA symptoms are something they deal with every day. This disease is progressive in nature, meaning that it tends to get worse over time. RA also has the potential to cause chronic pain,joint destruction, and functional disability.


The reappearance or worsening of arthritic symptoms.

RA affects the joints by causing an inflammation of the specialized cells that cover the ends of bones and line the joint. These specialized cells are collectively called the synovium. The inflammation in RA is caused by a person’s own immune system attacking his or her own body’s tissues. This type of reaction is called an “autoimmune” reaction; hence RA is sometimes referred to as an autoimmune disease.


A response to injury or foreign invasion that is designed to protect the body. Its symptoms include heat, redness, swelling, and pain.

Autoimmune disease

A disease that arises when an individual’s immune system reacts against his or her own organs and tissues.

RA affects 1% of the U.S. population, or approximately 2.1 million Americans. Currently, its cause is unknown, although

several theories have been suggested regarding its origins. For example, scientists hypothesize that RA may be caused by a complex interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and his or her environment.

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