Introduction Th17 cells have been implicated in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The aim of this study was to systematically analyse the phenotype, cytokine profile and frequency of interleukin-17 (IL-17) producing CD4-positive T cells in mononuclear cells isolated from peripheral blood, synovial fluid and synovial tissue of RA patients with established disease, and to correlate cell frequencies with disease activity. Methods Flow cytometry was used to analyse the phenotype and cytokine production of mononuclear cells isolated from peripheral blood (PBMC) (n = 44), synovial fluid (SFMC) (n = 14) and synovium (SVMC) (n = 10) of RA patients and PBMC of healthy controls (n = 13). Results The frequency of IL-17-producing CD4 T cells was elevated in RA SFMC compared with RA PBMC (P = 0.04). However, the frequency of this population in RA SVMC was comparable to that in paired RA PBMC. The percentage of IL-17-producing CD4 T cells coexpressing tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) was significantly increased in SFMC (P = 0.0068). The frequency of IFNγ-producing CD4 T cells was also significantly higher in SFMC than paired PBMC (P = 0.042). The majority of IL-17-producing CD4 T cells coexpressed IFNγ. IL-17-producing CD4 T cells in RA PBMC and SFMC exhibited very little IL-22 or IL-23R coexpression. Conclusions These findings demonstrate a modest enrichment of IL-17-producing CD4 T cells in RA SFMC compared to PBMC. Th17 cells in SFMC produce more TNFα than their PBMC counterparts, but are not a significant source of IL-22 and do not express IL-23R. However, the percentage of CD4 T cells which produce IL-17 in the rheumatoid joint is low, suggesting that other cells may be alternative sources of IL-17 within the joints of RA patients.