Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disease, where immune cells mistakenly attack and destroy healthy body tissue, because they believe the healthy tissue is a bacteria or virus. It is incurable and progressive.
Rheumatoid arthritis is characterised by inflammation of the synovial membrane, which lines the joints and is essential for the protection and lubrication of the bone and helps to ensure joint mobility. Inflammation occurs because the immune cells, which are designed to protect the body, start to attack the joints. The inflammation spreads to the cartilage or bone causing pain, stiffness and swelling, and may eventually result in irreversible bone destruction.
The disease affects people of all ages and of both sexes, but women are three times more likely to be affected than men and often first symptoms develop around the age of 40.
The destruction of joints can begin shortly after the first symptoms, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Affected joints can be painful, hot, red, swollen and stiff, and progressive restriction of movement can occur, while other common symptoms include fatigue, morning stiffness, muscle aches and loss of appetite.
In many cases it is only after a short time that any movement of the limbs causes pain, making simple everyday tasks difficult, such as opening a jar or making tea.
Rheumatoid arthritis is also a systemic disease, which, although not the case for everyone, means that it can affect the whole body and internal organs such as the lungs, heart and eyes.
In addition to progressing quickly, rheumatoid arthritis may involve both periods of remission and disease flare ups. For people with rheumatoid arthritis, disease flares can cause further joint destruction, and therefore a key aim of treatment is to tightly control the activity of the disease through regular monitoring.
The prognosis for some people with rheumatoid arthritis can be poor, and only a year after diagnosis, one in seven people are no longer able to work. The impact of the disease is shown by work ability figures: after five years 40% of people lose their jobs because of rheumatoid arthritis, three quarters of whom for reasons directly related to their arthritis.
The final stage of rheumatoid arthritis, characterised by severely deformed wrists and ankles, has become less common due to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
Roche’s scientists are acutely aware of the daily challenges faced by people with rheumatoid arthritis and the clinicians who care for them, and because of this we strive to discover and develop even better diagnostic tools and therapies.