Rheumatoid arthritis is one of several "autoimmune"
diseases ("auto" means self), so-called because a person's
immune system attacks his or her own body tissues. Scientists
still do not know exactly what causes this to happen, but
research over the last few years has begun to unravel the
Genetic (inherited) factors: Scientists
have found that certain genes that play a role in the immune
system are associated with a tendency to develop rheumatoid
arthritis. At the same time, some people with rheumatoid arthritis
do not have these particular genes, and other people have
these genes but never develop the disease. This suggests that
a person's genetic makeup is an important part of the story
but not the whole answer. It is clear, however, that more
than one gene is involved in determining whether a person
develops rheumatoid arthritis and, if so, how severe the disease
Environmental factors: Many scientists
think that something must occur to trigger the disease process
in people whose genetic makeup makes them susceptible to rheumatoid
arthritis. An infectious agent such as a virus or bacterium
appears likely, but the exact agent is not yet known. Note,
however, that rheumatoid arthritis is not contagious: A person
cannot "catch" it from someone else.
Other factors: Some scientists also think
that a variety of hormonal factors may be involved. These
hormones, or possibly deficiencies or changes in certain hormones,
may promote the development of rheumatoid arthritis in a genetically
susceptible person who has been exposed to a triggering agent
from the environment.
Even though all the answers aren't known, one
thing is certain: Rheumatoid arthritis develops as a result
of an interaction of many factors. Much research is going
on now to understand these factors and how they work together
(see the Current Research section).
and Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
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