Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S. Autoimmune diseases cause the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissues, and in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints and organs, including the heart. RA occurs almost three times as often in women as it does in men. Although it can occur at nearly any age, it most commonly develops in middle age, usually between the ages of 30 and 60 years. It men, it often occurs later in life. [1][2]

The underlying cause of RA is unknown, but researchers believe it occurs as a result of a combination of factors, including genetics, hormones and environmental stimuli that trigger the immune system to act abnormally. Other potential triggers include bacterial or viral infections or smoking.

After the abnormal immune system reaction is triggered, immune cells that normally fight off pathogens and infections instead turn their attention toward the synovium, the tissue that lines the joints and helps facilitate normal joint function. The immune cells cause the synovium and joint cartilage to become irritated, eventually wearing away the cartilage and causing the synovium to become chronically inflamed. Over time, the cartilage layer completely wears away, leaving bone surfaces to rub against one another and resulting in significant pain in and around the joint, especially during motion. At the same time, inflammation of the synovium causes swelling within the joint that can wind up damaging the bone surfaces. Externally, joints affected by RA appear red and swollen and feel warm and tender when touched.


Like many autoimmune disorders, the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can be widespread, affecting people in very different ways, especially as the disease progresses. Some of the most common symptoms of RA include [3]:

  • swollen, painful joints
  • joints that appear red
  • joints that feel warm to the touch
  • joint stiffness, especially in the morning or after long periods of being inactive
  • fatigue
  • inability to turn the head without pain
  • bilateral symptoms – symptoms that occur on one side often occur on the other as well

The course of RA can also vary from person to person. In some people, the disease progresses very rapidly, while in others it can take several years for symptoms to fully develop. RA can also cause flareups, periods when symptoms become especially severe. These flareups are typically followed by periods of remission when symptoms are less active or may completely disappear for some time.


Clinicians have not developed a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, and treatment is aimed at preventing flareups, relieving symptoms like pain and inflammation, and slowing the disease progression. Most patients find proactive management with their healthcare provider is the best option for achieving remission or otherwise relieving symptoms or long periods of time.

Several drugs are available to treat the disease, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation, oral or injected steroids when NSAIDs are not effective and drugs called DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) which help slow the progression of the disease. [4] Despite advanced in medical treatment options, between 20 percent and 40 percent of patients do not respond favorably to RA drugs. [5]

Physical and occupational therapies are also an important part of treatment, offering guidance with regard to exercise, nutrition and other therapeutic options like use of self-massage and application of heat and ice to manage symptoms.

When symptoms don’t resolve and joint pain or dysfunction interferes with quality of life, joint replacement surgery may be an option for knees, hips or shoulders. Other joints like the ankle respond better to fusion surgeries. Joint replacements have an average lifespan of about 15 to 20 years, so the option is reserved for older patients and as a last resort when other treatments fail.

Lifestyle changes are another important part of symptom management. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces stress on inflamed joints, and staying active helps maintain joint mobility and decrease stiffness. [6][7]

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Although early stem cell research centered on the use of embryonic stem cells derived from umbilical cords, today’s researchers have found other sources of stem cells, including bone marrow and fat (adipose) tissue, enabling patients to supply their own stem cells for management. These stem cells are referred to as adult or mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

The use of stem cells has been explored as a management for many diseases, with significant focus placed on autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. That’s because stem cells not only have the capability of turning into healthy cells that can migrate to the site of damage and replace or replenish cells affected by disease, but they can also have a significant effect on immune processes, resetting the immune system and preventing it from reacting abnormally. Since an abnormal immune process is at the heart of immune-mediated disorders, the potential for stem cells in battling these diseases is exceptional. [8]

Stem cells also appear to have anti-inflammatory effects to reduce or prevent the inflammatory cascade that plays a significant role in disease, and they can also help promote the development of blood vessels to increase circulation and support healing. [9]

This discovery in the management for RA helps replenish the deteriorated cells and achieve relief from the variety of complications associated with the condition. By modulating one’s immune system and aiding the body’s natural healing process work faster and more effectively, adipose stem cell therapy has shown a theorhetical potential for improvement with the following symptoms:

  • Reduction of inflammation in joints
  • Reduction or elimination of stiffness
  • Increased energy
  • Increased range of motion
  • Reduction or elimination of fatigue
  • Increased flexibility
  • Reduction or elimination of joint pain
  • Reduction or elimination of swelling

Suggested References:

  1. What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?.WebMD. Available at: WebMD.com.
  2. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Available at: Arthritis.org.
  3. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms. Available at: Arthritis.org.
  4. Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis — Treatment. WebMD. Available at: WebMD.com.
  5. New stem cell-based treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Horizon 2020. Available at: EC.Europa.eu.
  6. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Available at: Arthritis.org.
  7. Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis — Treatment. WebMD. Available at: WebMD.com.
  8. Uccelli, A, Prockop, DJ. Why should mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) cure autoimmune diseases? Current Opinion in Immunology. 2010;22(6):768–774. doi:10.1016/j.coi.2010.10.012.
  9. El-Jawhari, JJ, El-Sherbiny, YM, Jones, EA, Mcgonagle, D. Mesenchymal stem cells, autoimmunity and rheumatoid arthritis. Qjm. 2014;107(7):505–514. doi:10.1093/qjmed/hcu033.

Bone Marrow Stromal Stem Cells in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine.

Polymeri A, Giannobile WV, Kaigler D.

Horm Metab Res. 2016 Nov;48(11):700-713. Review.

Human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for treatment towards immune- and inflammation-mediated diseasesreview of current clinical trials.

Wang LT, Ting CH, Yen ML, Liu KJ, Sytwu HK, Wu KK, Yen BL.

J Biomed Sci. 2016 Nov 4;23(1):76. Review.

The Immunoregulatory Activity of Mesenchymal Stem Cells: ‘State of Art’ and ‘Future Avenues’.

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Curr Med Chem. 2016;23(27):3014-3024. Review.

Modulation of Immune Responses by Mesenchymal Stromal Cells.

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Bull Exp Biol Med. 2016 Aug;161(4):561-5. doi: 10.1007/s10517-016-3461-8. Review.

Mesenchymal stromal cells and immunomodulation: A gathering of regulatory immune cells.

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Cytotherapy. 2016 Feb;18(2):160-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jcyt.2015.10.011. Review.

Mesenchymal stem cells and immunomodulation: current status and future prospects.

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Update on mesenchymal stem cell-based therapy in lupus and scleroderma.

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Arthritis Res Ther. 2015 Nov 3;17:301. doi: 10.1186/s13075-015-0819-7. Review.

Actual results may vary. The statements are not intended to imply that the results would be the same or similar for each patient. Each patient is unique and no particular result or outcome can be predicted or guaranteed. The statements in this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Some of these procedures may be considered experimental. These procedures are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The use of stem cells is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration to combat aging or to prevent, treat, cure or mitigate any disease or medical condition mentioned, cited or described in this website. The science of treatment with stem cells is in its early stages and stem cell treatments are not considered to be the standard of care for any medical condition, ailment, illness or disease. There could be significant and unknown risks associated with stem cell treatments, as long-term studies have not been performed.