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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease of unknown etiology marked by a symmetric, peripheral polyarthritis. It is the most common form of chronic inflammatory arthritis and often results in joint damage and physical disability. Because it is a systemic disease, RA may result in a variety of extraarticular manifestations, including fatigue, subcutaneous nodules, lung involvement, pericarditis, peripheral neuropathy, vasculitis, and hematologic abnormalities.

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Insights gained by a wealth of basic and clinical research over the past two decades have revolutionized the contemporary paradigms for the diagnosis and management of RA. Serum antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCPs) are now recognized to be a valuable biomarker of diagnostic and prognostic significance. Advances in ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging have improved our ability to detect joint inflammation and destruction in RA. The science of RA has taken a major leap forward with the identification of new disease-related genes and further deciphering of the molecular pathways of disease pathogenesis. The relative importance of these different mechanisms has been highlighted by the observed benefits of the new class of highly targeted biologic therapies. Despite these gains, incomplete understanding of the initiating pathogenic pathways of RA remains a sizable barrier to its cure and prevention.

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The last two decades have witnessed a remarkable improvement in the outcomes of RA. The historic descriptions of crippling arthritis are currently encountered much less frequently. Much of this progress can be traced to the expanded therapeutic armamentarium and the adoption of early treatment intervention. The shift in treatment strategy dictates a new mind-set for primary care practitioners—namely, one that demands early referral of patients with inflammatory arthritis to a rheumatologist for prompt diagnosis and initiation of therapy. Only then will patients achieve their best outcomes.

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The incidence of RA increases between 25 and 55 years of age, after which it plateaus until the age of 75 and then decreases. The presenting symptoms of RA typically result from inflammation of the joints, tendons, and bursae. Patients often complain of early morning joint stiffness lasting more than 1 hour and easing with physical activity. The earliest involved joints are typically the small joints of the hands and feet. The initial pattern of joint involvement may be monoarticular, oligoarticular (≤4 joints), or polyarticular (>5 joints), usually in a symmetric distribution. Some patients with an inflammatory arthritis will present with too few affected joints and other characteristic features to be classified as having RA—so-called undifferentiated inflammatory arthritis. Those with an undifferentiated arthritis, who are most likely to be diagnosed later with RA, have a higher number of tender and swollen joints, test positive for serum rheumatoid factor (RF) or anti-CCP antibodies, and have higher scores for physical disability.

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Once the disease process of RA is established, the wrists, metacarpophalangeal (MCP), and proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joints stand out as the most frequently involved joints (Fig. 321-1). Distal interphalangeal (DIP) joint involvement may occur in RA, ...

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