Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune and inflammatory disorder affecting various body systems, including the joints, skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. An autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy cells and tissues.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes painful inflammation/ swelling in the affected body parts. RA primarily attacks the joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. This tissue damage can cause long-lasting symptoms like chronic pain, instability, and deformity.

What are the symptoms?

These are the primary symptoms caused by Rheumatoid Arthritis: 

  • Pain, tenderness, swelling, or stiffness in the joints that lasts longer than six weeks.
  • Morning stiffness that lasts longer than thirty minutes
  • Small joints (hands and feet) are typically affected first.
  • Similar joints on both sides of the body are affected. 
  • Dryness, pain, inflammation, redness in the eye, sensitivity to light.
  • Dryness and gum inflammation, irritation, or infection. 
  • Rheumatoid nodules 
  • Shortness of breath and lung disease.
  • Inflammation of blood vessels can damage the nerves, skin, and other organs.
  • A lower than the average number of red blood cells. 
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Weight gain due to lack of exercise caused by joint pain. 

What causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

While we know that Rheumatoid arthritis happens due to the body’s immune system attacking its healthy cells, the specific cause of RA is unknown. Still, some factors can increase the risk of developing the condition.

Risk Factors

Several genetic and environmental factors may increase the risk of developing RA; they include the following: 

  • Age. The onset of RA is high among adults over 60.
  • Early Life. Some early life exposures can increase the risk of developing RA in adulthood. 
  • Genetics. People with specific genes are more likely to develop RA. 
  • Menopause. Women who haven’t given birth may be at greater risk of developing RA.
  • Obesity. Being obese can increase the risk of developing RA. 
  • Sex. Gout is typically two-to-three times higher in men than women.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking can increase the risk of developing RA and worsen the disease.

How is RA diagnosed?

A rheumatologist can diagnose RA using medical history, a physical examination, and lab results. The doctor will ask about joint symptoms when they started, if they come and go, how severe they are, what actions make them better or worse, and any family history of arthritis. Then, the doctor will typically examine the body for joint tenderness, swelling, and other signs of RA. 

Blood tests can also look for inflammation and antibodies linked to RA.

An X-ray, ultrasound, or MRI scan can look for declines in joints and bones once RA has advanced past the early stage. 

What is an Autoimmune Disease? 

Your immune system protects the body from disease and infection by attacking harmful germs in the body, like bacteria and viruses. Your immune system has a unique way of telling which objects are foreign and then destroys them accordingly. However, with an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy organ and tissue cells. Over eighty autoimmune diseases can affect relatively any part of your body. 

What causes autoimmune diseases?

There is no exact cause of autoimmune disorders, and even with all of the studies, they are still reasonably mysterious to the medical world. They tend to pass along genetically from generation to generation, meaning some people are more likely to develop an issue. Viruses, certain chemicals, and other environmental factors can trigger autoimmune diseases in some people.

Risk Factors

Millions of people of all ages have autoimmune disorders in the United States and across the globe. Women develop autoimmune diseases more often than men, but the reason is unknown. 

Other Types of Arthritis

There are four other primary types of arthritis. 


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and can be passed on genetically. It is also known as degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis and is caused when the joint cartilage breaks down and the bone begins to change. It typically occurs in the hands, hips, and knees and causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and a decreased range of motion. It can reduce the daily quality of life and lead to permanent disability.


Fibromyalgia is categorized as abnormal pain processing that causes pain and stiffness all over the body and tingling in the hands and feet. Other symptoms include fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep problems; digestive issues, headaches; and slowed cognitive ability. 


Gout results from hyperuricemia, a condition where the body overproduces uric acid that builds up in the joints, fluids, and tissues. Gout only occurs in one joint at a time and is typically found in the joints, ankles, or knees. It can cause painful swelling and redness in the joints. Gout is commonly found in men, obese people, or those with diabetes who drink alcohol regularly. Diets high in purines have been found to lead to gout as well. 

Childhood Arthritis

Childhood arthritis can cause permanent damage to joints. The most common type is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA); although there is no cure, it can go into remission. Patients typically experience joint pain, swelling, stiffness, fever, rash, fatigue, loss of appetite, and eye inflammation. The cause of childhood arthritis is unknown, but it seems to be connected to autoimmune deficiencies. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatments

Rheumatoid arthritis can be treated and managed with medication. RA medicines typically slow the disease and prevent joint deformity. They are called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biological response modifiers (biologicals). In addition, patients can manage their RA with self-management strategies such as daily exercise, no smoking, eating a better diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. 

Can medical cannabis help? 

A 2019 Danish study focused on THC and its usefulness for treating RA and ankylosing spondylitis, both chronic inflammatory diseases. The results of this study found that patients saw improvement after twelve weeks and improved quality of life after twenty-four weeks. 

Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research has a 2021 review that concluded medical cannabis works through CB1, CB2, and TRPV2 receptors to help control the immune response in patients with autoimmune diseases.

Medical cannabis has many benefits for patients with various autoimmune diseases.  THC, CBD, CBN, and more have anti-inflammatory and immune healing properties that could help as an alternative therapy option. The cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant can activate the endocannabinoid system in the human body and may help many chronic issues. 

Cannabis activates CB1 receptors in the central nervous system and CB2 receptors in organs, muscles, and tissues. Cannabinoids can directly influence our ability to maintain homeostasis.  We recommend discussing medical cannabis with a trusted healthcare provider before changing your RA treatment plan. 

Last Updated: June 14, 2024

Get Your Medical Card

Connect with a licensed physician online in minutes

Keep Reading