Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling in the joints. This happens because the immune system attacks the lining of the joints causing inflammation and joint damage.
RA usually affects the smaller joints, such as those in the hands, feet and wrists, although larger joints such as the hips and knees can also be affected.
Doctors still don't know what causes RA, but it is more common in people who smoke or have a family history of this disease.
It can also be difficult to diagnose because many conditions cause joint stiffness and inflammation.
Your doctor may do a physical examination to check your joints to see if they are swollen and to find out how easily they move. They may also request some blood tests and X-rays to see if the disease is damaging your joints.
Your doctor may also ask you about your symptoms, and it is essential to outline all of them and not just the ones you think are important.
If your doctor thinks you have RA they may refer you to a specialist called a 'rheumatologist'. A rheumatologist can diagnose this disease and ensure you receive the right treatment. If you have RA and have not yet seen a rheumatologist, you can ask your doctor for a referral.
Sources: Arthritis Australia (PDF Document - Rheumatoid arthritis), Department of Health and Ageing (Cth) (Rheumatoid arthritis), healthdirect (Rheumatoid arthritis), NHS Choices, UK (Rheumatoid arthritis)
Last reviewed: July 2015