Rheumatoid arthritis is not a modern disease. According to the Arthritis Foundation, American Indians living about 3,000 BC in what is now Tennessee showed signs of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
As cited in Arthritis Today's (January/February 2000 issue,) the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis were first described in 1680 by the British physician Thomas Sydenham (who was sometimes called the English Hippocrates).
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, characterized by periods of disease flares and remissions. Chronic inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent joint destruction and deformity. This form of arthritis is referred to as an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when the body tissues are mistakenly attacked by its own immune system. In automimmune diseases the antibodies in the blood and cells of the immune system target body tissues, where they can cause inflammation.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the tissue that is primary inflamed is the joint lining tissue called the synovial membrane. Normally, this tissue produces a small amount of joint fluid which lubricates and nourishes the cartilage of the joint. When it becomes inflamed, the synovial tissue produces an excessive amount of fluid filled with white blood cells that are potentially harmful to the cartilage. Furthermore, the inflamed synovial tissue becomes thickened and can wear away both cartilage and bone while loosening adjacent ligaments to cause deformity.
There is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis. The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis optimally involves a combination of patient education, rest and exercise, joint protection, medications, and occasionally surgery.
For more useful information on RA, please visit our Rheumatoid Arthritis Center.