Rheumatoid Arthritis: Definition and What it is

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Rheumatoid Arthritis Definition and Meaning

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy tissue lining the joints, causing chronic inflammation. This can result in pain, swelling, and stiffness as well as changes to joint function and mobility. While RA is serious, medication and lifestyle interventions can help control symptoms and disease progression.

Rheumatoid Arthritis vs. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis, is characterized by gradual cartilage changes in a joint. For some, it can cause symptoms such as pain and stiffness that tend to worsen after activity. Unlike OA, which might occur in just one part of the body (like the hands, neck, knee, ankle, wrist, or hip), rheumatoid arthritis tends to be symmetrical and impacts multiple joints throughout the body. So if you only have arthritis in one shoulder, for instance, the discomfort is less likely to be RA or another form of inflammatory arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can vary in severity and may come and go (periods of increased pain and symptoms are usually referred to as flares). RA symptoms typically include joint pain, swelling, and stiffness as well as chronic fatigue and even a low-grade fever. As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis can be alarming, so it’s natural to be upset and concerned if you’ve been told you have this condition. Your mind may jump to all sorts of conclusions about what you will — and won’t — be able to do. But before you start worrying, know this: While RA is a serious condition, there’s a lot you can do to manage the pain and prevent disease progression, including medication, healthy eating, and daily movement. As Hinge Health physical therapists say, movement is medicine. And the treatment needed for rheumatoid arthritis is no exception. General activity and more targeted, gentle exercises can play a big role in allowing you to maintain and improve your joint function, mobility, and flexibility. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints, which can reduce symptoms and disease progression. In addition to medication, lifestyle changes — including engaging in physical activity, prioritizing good sleep, and managing stress — can also help symptoms like fatigue and improve overall quality of life.

How Physical Therapy Can Help With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Physical therapy can help improve mobility, increase strength, and maintain joint function. Physical therapists (PTs) may recommend various techniques, including targeted exercises for joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis, to improve strength and joint flexibility. PTs often use other methods, such as heat and cold therapy, to ease joint pain and swelling. And they can recommend adaptive equipment, like a key turner tool or grip wrench, to make everyday tasks easier by allowing you to engage larger joints to complete tasks that usually require more dexterity in smaller joints. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.


  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis. (2021, October 15). Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/rheumatoid-arthritis 

  2. Wisely, R. (2019, May 21). How osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis differ. Michigan Medicine. https://www.michiganmedicine.org/health-lab/how-osteoarthritis-and-rheumatoid-arthritis-differ

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