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The word "arthritis" refers to several diseases that occur inside the joints between bones. The main symptom of all types of arthritis is pain in the joints, especially with movement. This pain can limit movement, making life difficult. It is important to know the difference between types of arthritis, because they are treated differently and have different long-term effects.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes swelling and inflammation of specific tissues (synovium) found in the joints. The synovial tissues are responsible for producing the synovial fluid needed for normal joint function. In rheumatoid arthritis, the synovial tissues inside the joint are damaged when they are attacked by the body's own immune system.
The immune system is made up of specialized cells that act as a surveillance and defense system against foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. Normally the immune system has a series of checks and balances that allow it to identify foreign substances and to keep them from attacking the body's tissue. For unknown reasons, occasionally the immune system will begin attacking the body's own tissues. Any disease in which the immune system attacks the body is called an autoimmune disease. When the tissue attacked is the joints, the result is rheumatoid arthritis.
When cells of the immune system attack your joint tissues, you feel pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joint. Over time as your body attempts to repair the damage caused by the attack, your joints become distorted and nonfunctional, and movement is increasingly difficult. The activation of the immune system releases chemicals into the bloodstream that are used as messengers to coordinate the activities of widely distributed cells, and these chemicals can cause symptoms of tiredness and fever.
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, and there is no known way to prevent the disease.
Last Revised: June 5, 2012
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