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15 Surprising Facts About Rheumatoid Arthritis

Health.com     First Posted: 08/14/11 12:15 AM ET   Updated: 10/13/11 06:12 AM ET

About 1.3 million people in the U.S. -- or 1 percent of adults -- have rheumatoid arthritis.

RA is different from osteoarthritis; it's caused by an abnormal immune reaction that attacks the lining of the joints and damages other parts of the body.

More research is needed to shed light on RA's exact causes, which are thought to be a combination of genes and environmental factors. However, here are some surprising facts about what is known about RA's history, triggers and risk factors.

RA Used To Be A "Wasting Disease"
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In the past, people with RA were often rail-thin; exercise was thought to do further damage to the joints, so their muscles atrophied, says David Pisetsky, M.D., professor of medicine and immunology at the Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C. In addition, the chronic inflammation associated with RA causes weight loss and loss of appetite, he says.

Today, medicines curb inflammation, and exercise is part of treatment -- so RA doesn't have to mean wasting away.

While exercise can be difficult (if not impossible) during a flare-up, activity is generally thought to help, not hurt, people with RA.

More from Health.com:
10 Health Risks Linked to Rheumatoid Arthritis
How RA Differs from Osteoarthritis
15 Things Not to Say to Someone in Pain
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Filed by Emma Gray  |