The cause of the abnormal
immune system response that develops in rheumatoid
arthritis is not fully understood. Since cells of the immune system are free to
travel all over the body through the bloodstream, symptoms of rheumatoid
arthritis tend to be less localized than the symptoms of other types of joint
diseases. Most often, pain and swelling will begin slowly in a single joint
first and then gradually more and more joints will become painful and swollen.
Uncommonly, the onset of rheumatoid arthritis may be abrupt, with pain and
swelling suddenly striking many joints at once. The joint pain may cause the
person to have significant trouble with normal movements.
The joint discomfort associated with rheumatoid arthritis is caused
by swelling, heat, and pain—signs of inflammation—as the immune system is
called into action. Inflammation also causes the sensation of stiffness within
the joints, especially upon rising or after a period of inactivity. Stiffness
lasting longer than 1 hour is a common symptom of rheumatoid
Another characteristic of autoimmune diseases is that they tend to
be associated with what are called systemic symptoms, or symptoms that appear
throughout the body. These symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite,
and malaise. These general symptoms of illness are due to the chemical
messengers released by the immune cells when they are activated.
Primary Medical Reviewer
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer
Nancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH - Internal Medicine, Rheumatology
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.