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    Mayo Clinic Minute: What is rheumatoid arthritis?

More than 54 million Americans suffer from painful, swollen joints caused by arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new report from the CDC highlights for the first time the prevalence and health-related characteristics of arthritis across the U.S. Dr. Eric Matteson, a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic, says one form of the chronic condition, rheumatoid arthritis, can affect more than joints. It can affect a person's heart, eyes, lungs and kidneys.

Watch: The Mayo Clinic Minute

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Painful and swollen joints. Deformity in the hands.

"Deforming arthritis is one of the signs of rheumatoid arthritis," says Dr. Matteson.

He says rheumatoid arthritis is quite different from the more common osteoarthritis.

“It's an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system is overactive for some reason that we don’t know and decides to attack the lining of the joints, causing inflammation in the lining, which leads to damage in the joint structures, the cartilage, the bone.”

There are medications to help slow the disease and offer relief pain but not a way to prevent it. Dr. Matteson says early treatment is important.

“Rheumatoid arthritis untreated leads to severe joint damage. It actually shortens life expectancy.”