Conditions & Treatments

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic, autoimmune disease, is the most crippling form of arthritis and affects approximately 2.1 million Americans.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the joints. The inflammation can become so severe that the function and appearance of the hands, as well as other parts of the body, can become affected. In the hand, rheumatoid arthritis may cause deformities in the joints of the fingers, making movement difficult. Lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, may form over small joints in the hands and the wrist. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) is a form of arthritis in children ages 16 or younger that causes inflammation and stiffness of joints for more than six weeks. Unlike adult rheumatoid arthritis, which is chronic and lasts a lifetime, children often outgrow JRA. However, the disease can affect bone development in the growing child.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues. The response of the body causes inflammation in and around the joints, which then may lead to a destruction of the skeletal system. Rheumatoid arthritis also may have devastating effects to other organs, such as the heart and lungs. Researchers believe certain factors, including heredity, may contribute to the onset of the disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men (70 percent of persons with rheumatoid arthritis are women). The disease most often occurs between the ages of 30 and 50.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The joints most commonly affected by rheumatoid arthritis are in the hands, wrists, feet, ankles, knees, shoulders, and elbows. The disease typically causes inflammation symmetrically in the body, meaning the same joints are affected on both sides of the body. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may begin suddenly or gradually. The following are the most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain

  • Stiffness, especially in the morning

  • Swelling over the joints

  • Decreased movement

  • Pain that is worse with movement of the joints

  • Bumps may be noted over the small joints

  • Difficulty performing activities of daily living (ADLs), such as tying shoes, opening jars, or buttoning shirts

  • Decreased ability to grasp or pinch

  • Fatigue

  • Occasional fever

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

Diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis may be difficult in the early stages because symptoms may be very subtle and go undetected on X-rays or blood tests. In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for rheumatoid arthritis may include the following:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Joint aspiration. This involves a removal of fluid from the swollen bursa to exclude infection or gout as possible causes.

  • Biopsy (of nodules tissue). A procedure in which tissue samples are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.

  • Blood tests. These tests are done to detect certain antibodies, called rheumatoid factor, and other indicators for rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis

Specific treatment for rheumatoid arthritis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Medications. Some medications may be used for pain relief, other medications will be used to treat inflammation, and finally some medications will be used to slow the disease from progressing. Depending on your symptoms and preferences, your doctor may treat you with one or more types of treatments.

  • Splints. Splints may be used to help protect the joints and strengthen the weak joints.

  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy may be used to help increase the strength and movement of the affected areas.

  • Surgery. Surgery may be performed if the above treatment options fail. The decision for surgery should be made in consultation with your doctor. Repair or reconstruction of the hand and wrist can be performed in a variety of ways, including the following:

    • Surgical cleaning. This option may be performed on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, or other types of hand arthritis. Inflamed and diseased tissues within the hands can be removed to help increase function.

    • Joint replacement. This type of surgery, also called arthroplasty, may be used in cases of severe arthritis of the hand. This option may be performed on older patients with a lower activity level. Joint replacement may provide a decrease in pain and an increase in function of the hands and fingers. This involves replacing a joint that has been destroyed by the disease process with an artificial joint. This artificial joint may be made out of metal, plastic, silicone rubber, or the patient's own body tissue (such as the tendon).

    • Joint fusion. This option usually involves removing the joint and fusing together two ends of bones. This makes one large bone without a joint. This option is usually used on patients with advanced arthritis. After the fusion of the bone, there is an elimination of movement in the fused joint.

It is important to remember that surgery does not correct the underlying disease. It only helps correct the deformities caused by the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis can continue to cause problems in the hand, and may even require additional surgery. Close follow-up with your doctor is required for optimal control of this disease.

Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:


  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Bone and Joint Imaging and Intervention
    The Bone and Joint Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers state-of-the-art diagnostic exams including MRI and CT, interpretation by specialty-trained radiologists, and image-guided procedures for the bones, joints, and spine.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Rheumatology Program
    Pediatric rheumatologists at MassGeneral Hospital for Children specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of all rheumatic and inflammatory conditions of infants, children and adolescents.
Department of Orthopaedics

  • Podiatry Service
    Our Podiatrists provide state-of-the-art outpatient and surgical care treating conditions like hammertoes, Morton’s neuroma, Plantar Fasciitis, geriatric foot care and bunions.
  • Hip & Knee Replacement Service
    Our Best of Boston joint replacement surgeons specialize in innovative approaches to total hip replacement and total knee replacement using a variety of minimally invasive techniques and new materials developed by our Harvard faculty.
Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Midlife Women's Health Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Midlife Women’s Health Center brings together experts from more than 15 specialties to improve, promote and advance health care for women at menopause and beyond through research, collaboration and education.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

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