If you think you have arthritis, or have recently been diagnosed, you may wonder what causes rheumatoid arthritis or be curious if there is anything you could do to avoid getting it in the first place. Unfortunately, the causes of rheumatoid arthritis are somewhat mysterious.
In medical terms, the cause of rheumatoid arthritis can be thought of as an unusually sensitive autoimmune system. Your immune system should identify foreign bodies that could do you harm and create inflammation to combat and flush them from your system. In an autoimmune disorder or disease, the immune system misidentifies natural, healthy parts of your body as threats and creates inflammation to try to combat them. Since they’re a part of you, the inflammation just causes discomfort, pain, or damage with no beneficial effects.
The specific scientific explanation of rheumatoid arthritis is that white blood cells or “T cells” create inflammation in a tissue called “synovium” that supports the cartilage that covers the bones in your joints. This tissue is sandwiched between your bones and the cartilage cap over your joints, so when it swells in that tight space it can create painful pressure and also contribute to erosion of the bone and cartilage. Inflammation can also spread, impacting other organs and body systems in some cases.
Patients tend to find this explanation frustrating because it doesn’t offer constructive advice for avoiding damaging autoimmune responses and staying safe from rheumatoid arthritis. When they ask what causes rheumatoid arthritis, they’re hoping for a specific behaviour or influence that they could eliminate to reduce their risk.
There are some identifiable factors that contribute to your likelihood of developing or displaying symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. If you have a family history of arthritis, you may have inherited genetic factors that influence immune system response. A variation in the gene that controls T cells seems to be held in common by patients suffering autoimmune disorders where the T cells overreacts or overcorrects when abnormalities occur in the joints.
Environmental factors such as a significant infection, when combined with a genetic predisposition toward less than optimal immune response, may trigger an outbreak of rheumatoid arthritis. Chemical factors such as insecticides and airborne pollutants, including smoking, can be a trigger. Some industrial workers are triggered when exposed to mineral oils and silica. Bacteria and viruses can trigger inflammation, which may redirect at natural parts of the body in the presence of certain genetic markers.
While it’s entirely out of patients’ control, gender, age, and family history all can have an influence on the likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis. About 70% of those diagnosed with RH are female, and age-related hormone changes are thought to trigger rheumatoid arthritis, though the disease can affect people of all ages.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not caused by overuse or misuse of the body—“Osteoarthritis” is the term for when wear and tear is causing joint pain. However, if you’re worried about what causes rheumatoid arthritis and how you can reduce your risk, making general lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of inflammation response can help. Eat healthy, stay active, and wash your hands to avoid catching viruses or introducing bad bacteria into your system.