The immune system of a healthy individual is wired to help fight infection. However, in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system mistakenly begins attacking the body, rather than helping it.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes your own body to attack its own joint tissue,” says Ramzi Yacoub, PharmD, Chief Pharmacy Officer of prescription savings service SingleCare.

Though sometimes people with RA will experience no symptoms, other times the symptoms will flare up leading to pain, stiffness, inflammation, and redness in the joints. “Generally, these symptoms start in your fingers and toes and then progress to your other joints,” Yacoub says.

Before these symptoms occur, however, a person might begin experiencing early warning signs of RA.

Being on the lookout for these signs is important so you can seek treatment before the disease progresses.

Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis

Early warning signs of RA might include:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Morning stiffness in the joints
  3. Joint stiffness at any time of day
  4. Slight fever due to inflammation
  5. Joint tenderness, pain, and/or swelling
  6. Numbness and tingling in the feet and/or hands
  7. Decrease in range of motion
  8. Symmetrical joint pain on both sides of the body
  9. Unexplained weight loss

If you begin experiencing these symptoms, consult with your doctor in order to get a proper diagnosis.

Living with RA

According to Yacoub, though there is currently no cure for RA, starting preventative medication as early as possible will help manage the symptoms and block inflammation to prevent further joint damage.

“The most common medications used to treat these symptoms are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs. They are used to help reduce inflammation and relieve joint pain,” Yacoub tells Considerable.

Steroids such as prednisone can also be used to reduce inflammation and slow joint damage. “Generally, [steroids] are used to relieve exacerbations of symptoms and are not used in the long term, due to their side effects,” Yacoub says.

Finally, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are an alternative treatment for RA and help slow the progression or joint tissue damage caused by RA, Yacoub notes. “These medications are very effective in reducing progression of disease and improving quality of life.”

Bonus: 7 foods that can help relieve joint pain

If aching knees, stiff shoulders, and other painful joints are something you regularly experience, you’re not the only one. According to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 14 million people suffer from severe joint pain, commonly caused by inflammation in the body. Remedies include regular exercise and supplements, but what you eat may also help.

Your best bet: talk to your doctor and try different foods to see if they hurt or help your joint pain. Here are seven to consider.

  1. Pineapple
  2. Salmon
  3. Turmeric
  4. Ginger
  5. Hot peppers
  6. Garlic
  7. Cherries