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RA Facts

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic and systemic disease characterized by inflammation of the joints. It is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, affecting 1.3 million people in the United States and approximately one percent of the population worldwide. It is usually progressive, often leading to long-term joint damage which can result in chronic pain, loss of function and disability.1,2,3


  • RA usually first presents during middle age and often starts in the small joints of the hands, wrists and feet on both sides of the body. As the disease progresses, it can affect other joints and even other organs in the body.3
  • Symptoms include joint pain and stiffness, morning stiffness lasting at least 30 minutes, muscle pain, weakness, and flu-like symptoms, often with a low-grade fever, fatigue and malaise. The joints of people with RA are often warm, tender and swollen.1,2,3
  • While RA is a chronic disease, symptoms may vary in severity over time and flares of increased disease activity can occur frequently.1


Causes and Risk Factors

  • Though the exact cause of RA is not known, it is connected to the body’s immune system and is considered an autoimmune disease. The immune system of someone with RA mistakes the body’s healthy tissue for a threat and attacks it, much as it would a virus or bacteria.1
  • Those with an increased risk of developing RA include people with a family history of RA, smokers, and women, who are two to three times more likely to develop RA. Some researchers also believe that certain infections may play a role in the onset of the


Diagnosis and Treatment

  • A combination of several tests is used to determine a diagnosis and treatment approach, including a medical history and physical exam, various lab tests and x-rays. Timely diagnosis and treatment of RA is crucial as joint destruction can start around the same time as symptom onset. Early treatment slows the disease progression and is critical in limiting joint damage and the resulting loss of movement.1,2
  • There is currently no cure for RA. Treatment approaches, including drug therapy, lifestyle modification and surgery, generally involve preserving functionality and quality of life, minimizing pain and inflammation, protecting joints and controlling systemic complications.1,2



  1. “Rheumatoid Arthritis: What Is it?” Arthritis Foundation. Accessed 6 May 2009. Available at
  2. Rindfleisch, J. Adam, M.D., and Muller, Daniel, M.D., PH.D. "Diagnosis and Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis." American Family Physician. September 15, 2005. Volume 72, Number 6.
  3. Rheumatoid Arthritis Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health. Accessed 7 May 2009. Available at: