Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. There is no one blood test or physical finding to confirm the diagnosis.
During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, redness and warmth. He or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
People with rheumatoid arthritis often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, also known as sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP) level, which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
Your doctor may recommend X-rays to help track the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in your joints over time. MRI and ultrasound tests can help your doctor judge the severity of the disease in your body.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But clinical studies indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
The types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you've had rheumatoid arthritis.
- NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Side effects may include stomach irritation, heart problems and kidney damage.
- Steroids. Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Side effects may include thinning of bones, weight gain and diabetes. Doctors often prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve symptoms quickly, with the goal of gradually tapering off the medication.
- Conventional DMARDs. These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Common DMARDs include methotrexate (Trexall, Otrexup, others), leflunomide (Arava), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine). Side effects vary but may include liver damage and severe lung infections.
Biologic agents. Also known as biologic response modifiers, this newer class of DMARDs includes abatacept (Orencia), adalimumab (Humira), anakinra (Kineret), certolizumab (Cimzia), etanercept (Enbrel), golimumab (Simponi), infliximab (Remicade), rituximab (Rituxan), sarilumab (Kevzara) and tocilizumab (Actemra).
Biologic DMARDs are usually most effective when paired with a conventional DMARD, such as methotrexate. This type of drug also increases the risk of infections.
- Targeted synthetic DMARDs. Baricitinib (Olumiant), tofacitinib (Xeljanz) and upadacitinib (Rinvoq) may be used if conventional DMARDs and biologics haven't been effective. Higher doses of tofacitinib can increase the risk of blood clots in the lungs, serious heart-related events and cancer.
Your doctor may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who can teach you exercises to help keep your joints flexible. The therapist may also suggest new ways to do daily tasks that will be easier on your joints. For example, you may want to pick up an object using your forearms.
Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints. For instance, a kitchen knife equipped with a hand grip helps protect your finger and wrist joints. Certain tools, such as buttonhooks, can make it easier to get dressed. Catalogs and medical supply stores are good places to look for ideas.
If medications fail to prevent or slow joint damage, you and your doctor may consider surgery to repair damaged joints. Surgery may help restore your ability to use your joint. It can also reduce pain and improve function.
Rheumatoid arthritis surgery may involve one or more of the following procedures:
- Synovectomy. Surgery to remove the inflamed lining of the joint (synovium) can help reduce pain and improve the joint's flexibility.
- Tendon repair. Inflammation and joint damage may cause tendons around your joint to loosen or rupture. Your surgeon may be able to repair the tendons around your joint.
- Joint fusion. Surgically fusing a joint may be recommended to stabilize or realign a joint and for pain relief when a joint replacement isn't an option.
- Total joint replacement. During joint replacement surgery, your surgeon removes the damaged parts of your joint and inserts a prosthesis made of metal and plastic.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection and pain. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You can take steps to care for your body if you have rheumatoid arthritis. These self-care measures, when used along with your rheumatoid arthritis medications, can help you manage your signs and symptoms:
- Exercise regularly. Gentle exercise can help strengthen the muscles around your joints, and it can help reduce fatigue you might feel. Check with your doctor before you start exercising. If you're just getting started, begin by taking a walk. Avoid exercising tender, injured or severely inflamed joints.
- Apply heat or cold. Heat can help ease your pain and relax tense, painful muscles. Cold may dull the sensation of pain. Cold also has a numbing effect and can reduce swelling.
- Relax. Find ways to cope with pain by reducing stress in your life. Techniques such as guided imagery, deep breathing and muscle relaxation can all be used to control pain.
Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Fish oil. Some preliminary studies have found that fish oil supplements may reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness. Side effects can include nausea, belching and a fishy taste in the mouth. Fish oil can interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Plant oils. The seeds of evening primrose, borage and black currant contain a type of fatty acid that may help with rheumatoid arthritis pain and morning stiffness. Side effects may include headache, diarrhea and gas. Some plant oils can cause liver damage or interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Tai chi. This movement therapy involves gentle exercises and stretches combined with deep breathing. Many people use tai chi to relieve stress in their lives. Small studies have found that tai chi may improve mood and quality of life in people with rheumatoid arthritis. When led by a knowledgeable instructor, tai chi is safe. But don't do any moves that cause pain.
Coping and support
The pain and disability associated with rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person's work and family life. Depression and anxiety are common, as are feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.
The degree to which rheumatoid arthritis affects your daily activities depends in part on how well you cope with the disease. Talk to your doctor or nurse about strategies for coping. With time you'll learn what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:
- Take control. With your doctor, make a plan for managing your arthritis. This will help you feel in charge of your disease.
- Know your limits. Rest when you're tired. Rheumatoid arthritis can make you prone to fatigue and muscle weakness. A rest or short nap that doesn't interfere with nighttime sleep may help.
- Connect with others. Keep your family aware of how you're feeling. They may be worried about you but might not feel comfortable asking about your pain. Find a family member or friend you can talk to when you're feeling especially overwhelmed. Also connect with other people who have rheumatoid arthritis — whether through a support group in your community or online.
- Take time for yourself. It's easy to get busy and not take time for yourself. Find time for what you like, whether it's time to write in a journal, go for a walk or listen to music. This can help reduce stress.
Preparing for your appointment
While you might first discuss your symptoms with your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (rheumatologist) for further evaluation.
What you can do
Write a list that includes:
- Detailed descriptions of your symptoms
- Information about medical problems you've had in the past
- Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
- All the medications and dietary supplements you currently take and have taken in the past for this problem
- Questions you want to ask the doctor
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Have your symptoms changed over time?
- Which joints are affected?
- Does any activity make your symptoms better or worse?
- Are your symptoms interfering with daily tasks?