DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My daughter, 31, was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Do doctors know what causes the disease, especially at a young age? Will she need to be on medication for the rest of her life?
ANSWER: The precise cause of rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, remains unclear. However, both genetic and environmental factors appear to play a role in raising a person’s RA risk. Because we do not know the exact cause, we do not have a cure for RA. Most people with this disease do need long-term treatment.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a kind of disease known as an autoimmune disorder. These disorders happen when your immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s own tissues. In RA, the immune system attacks the lining of the membranes that surround your joints, called the synovium. That causes inflammation. The inflammation, in turn, thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.