Numbness, Muscle Pain and Other RA Symptoms
Rheumatoid arthritis is more than just joint pain and stiffness.
RA Symptoms: An Overview
Rheumatoid arthritis causes a number of painful symptoms, including stiffness, visible swelling, and deformation of the joints in the fingers and hands. Although they are defining features of the condition, joint pain and stiffness are by no means the only symptoms of RA. The same chronic inflammation that affects the joints can also affect every other system in the body. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of RA on the following slides.
How Does it Start?
The early symptoms of RA can be easy to miss, may seem like no big deal, or may appear to be symptoms of other disorders. Depression, fever, and fatigue may be mistaken for flu, while joint stiffness and swelling could be signs of overuse or injury. Joint problems of RA are often mirrored, meaning the same joint is affected on both sides of the body. This mirroring can help make RA more recognizable, but in the early stages of the disease this mirroring may not be present.
Typically, the small joints in the hands, wrists, and feet are the most affected. Some patients show symptoms in their ankles, knees, elbows, and shoulders. Joints become stiff, particularly in the morning or after long periods of rest. Joints are often described as “tender” or “achy,” and range of motion is generally limited. Along with pain and stiffness, joints affected by RA are often warm to the touch. They also become swollen, and over time, the long-term damage to the joints can cause severe deformities.
Rheumatoid nodules are lumps of swollen tissue just below the skin. These nodules can range from the size of a pea to the size of a baseball. They are usually found in places that are often bumped or otherwise injured, like the elbows, head, or hip joints. Nodules generally aren’t dangerous, but they can be quite painful. In rare cases they can be found on the eye, lung, heart, or other major organ, and may require surgical removal.
Rheumatoid vasculitis occurs when the small blood vessels in the fingers become inflamed. Narrowed blood vessels lead to decreased blood flow to the fingers, or even total blockage. The result is blackened skin at the ends of the fingers, particularly around the fingernails. In the worst cases, skin can become gangrenous and the fingers may need to be removed.
Neuropathy occurs when joint inflammation presses on a nerve, causing numbness or tingling. In some cases, the nerve becomes irritated, and sends pain signals to the brain. In RA patients, these sensations usually occur in the hands or feet, and sometimes in the arms or legs. Neuropathy should never be ignored, as it can also be an early warning sign of vasculitis.
Heart and Lung Problems
Many people don’t realize that chest pain and shortness of breath can be symptoms of RA. In fact, heart and lung problems can be a serious complication of the disease. According to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, people with RA have an increased incidence of blocked and hardened arteries, which could lead to heart attack or stroke. Pericarditis, or inflammation of the sac that encloses the heart, is also more common. Chronic inflammation can also damage lung tissues, resulting in reduced lung function.
Lesser Known Symptoms
Other symptoms of RA, either rare or not as well-known, include:
- sleep difficulties, often due to pain: Unfortunately, poor sleep can make RA symptoms worse, leading to a cycle of discomfort and sleep disturbance.
- dry eyes and mouth: This can occur due to decreased tear and saliva production.
- eye burning, itching, and discharge
- chronic or recurrent bacterial infections: Some research suggests that RA may stem from such infections, while other research maintains that recurrent infections might be due to the medications taken by RA patients.
What to Do
If you notice symptoms that could be signs of rheumatoid arthritis, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider to determine their cause. If you have already been diagnosed with RA, and you notice new or worsening symptoms, talk with your doctor to learn more about managing your RA symptoms.