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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 arthritis.
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.
Last Revised: June 5, 2012
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