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Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK and the most common inflammatory joint disorder. It causes joint pain and swelling, stiffness and fatigue.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects different people in different ways, so it's difficult to predict how it might develop. A study of a large group of people with the condition gave the following results:

  • 75 per cent continued having some joint pain, swelling and flare-ups
  • 20 per cent always have very mild rheumatoid arthritis
  • 5 per cent develop severe disease with extensive disability

Most people can have periods of months or years between flare-ups and appropriate treatment can help to reduce symptoms.

How common is rheumatoid arthritis?

UK data are based on a major study in Norfolk, the Norfolk Arthritis Register (NOAR), which monitors both primary and secondary care. This study also comprised a population survey to capture long-standing cases and those individuals who had never sought medical attention.

How many new cases of rheumatoid arthritis are there in the UK per year?

Age Males/100,000 UK estimate Females/100,000 UK estimate
15–24   3.0    120 15.5    610
25–34   5.6    220 29.0 1,150
35–44 12.1    560 50.6 2,370
45–54 31.3 1,210 91.9 3,640
55–64 42.1 1,480 88.1 3,210
65–74 66.6 1,590 94.4 2,500
75+ 57.0 1,020 29.8    850


Because rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition, the number of new cases per year added onto existing cases means that the number of people diagnosed with the disease is growing. This adds up to less than 2 per cent of all adult women and less than 0.5 per cent of men (around 400,000 adults in 2006) of the UK population with the condition. Women are three times more likely to be affected than men.

How many existing cases of rheumatoid arthritis are there in the UK?

Age Males (%) UK estimate Females (%) UK estimate 
16–44 0.02*     2,500 0.12   15,100
45–64 0.58   42,900 1.67 126,900
64–74 1.14   27,100 2.56   67,800
75+ 2.18   39,100 2.99   85,700
Total adult population 0.44 106,500 1.16 297,600


* Males aged 16–44 weren't included in the survey. This figure was calculated by assuming that the female:male ratio of rheumatoid arthritis in the 16–44 age group is the same as that observed in NOAR for the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis in the same age group.


1.    Wiles N, Symmons DPM, Harrison B, Barrett E, Barrett JH, Scott DGI et al. Estimating the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis – Trying to hit a moving target? Arthritis Rheum 1999; 42(7):1339–46.

2.    Symmons D, Turner G, Webb R, Asten P, Barrett E, Lunt M et al. The prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in the United Kingdom: new estimates for a new century. Rheumatology 2002; 41(7):793–800.

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