Rheumatoid Arthritis Complications

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 8, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on September 8, 2014

Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) doesn’t only affect the joints. RA is an autoimmune disease that can also affect many body organs and cause  symptoms that range from mild to severe. Fortunately, treatment can prevent or delay many of the complications of RA.

Bone and Joint Disease

RA does not only cause joint pain and stiffness. It can also cause long-term problems with bone and joint health.

Joint Destruction

Progressive inflammation from RA can destroy the cartilage and bone around affected joints. In severe cases, when there is severe loss of cartilage, the bones become deformed and can fuse, causing the joint to become immobilized. 

Joint damage is often permanent and irreversible. However, total joint replacement surgery may be an option for some joints.

Early, aggressive treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) may prevent or delay joint damage

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a loss of bone density. It makes fractures more likely. According to the Mayo Clinic, RA sufferers are at increased risk of osteoporosis for several reasons including:

  • they are both more common in older women and smokers
  • the corticosteroids commonly used in the treatment of RA can cause osteoporosis
  • RA may directly cause bone loss in affected joints

Talk to your doctor about steps you can take to prevent bone loss. Your doctor may recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Lifestyle Disruption

Both RA and its treatment can affect your quality of life in a number of ways.

Sleep

Pain from RA may wake patients several times during the night, preventing restorative sleep.  In addition, several RA drugs can cause insomnia.

Disability

Joint damage and pain can keep you from performing normal everyday tasks. It may become difficult to do even simple things like getting dressed or using a computer mouse.

RA symptoms can also affect your ability to work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people with RA are substantially more likely to:

  • change jobs
  • reduce work hours
  • retire early
  • lose their job

According to the CDC, RA is the 19th leading cause of years lost to disability in the United States.

Psychological problems

The stress of RA and the lifestyle changes it causes can lead to:

  • loss of self-esteem
  • feelings of helplessness
  • clinical depression
  • anxiety disorders

Whole-Body Illness

In addition to joint problems, RA also increases the risk of whole-body illness. People with RA are at particularly high risk of cardiovascular disease and infections.

Anemia

Anemia is a low level of red blood cells in the body. It causes:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • dizziness

Widespread inflammation caused by RA can affect production of red blood cells. According to an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, this makes anemia very common among RA patients.

Rheumatoid Lung

Rheumatoid lung is a group of lung conditions commonly found in RA patients. These conditions include:

  • fluid in the lungs or chest cavity (pleural effusions)
  • scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis)
  • lumps of tissue (nodules)
  • high blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)

It’s not known why RA leads to these problems. Symptoms of rheumatoid lung include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • persistent cough

Heart Disease

RA sometimes causes inflammation in and around the heart. It can cause both pericarditis and myocarditis. Pericarditis is inflammation of the membrane lining the heart. Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle itself.

Inflammation around the heart can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF is a serious condition where the heart cannot adequately pump blood to the rest of the body.

People with RA also have an increased risk of:

  • heart attack
  • hardening of the arteries
  • blood vessel inflammation

Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease commonly linked to RA. The disease attacks moisture-producing cells, like the salivary and tear glands.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Sjögren's syndrome is most prevalent in women. It’s characterized by:

  • dry eyes
  • dry mouth
  • problems with swallowing and talking

Sjögren's can also cause digestive and neurological problems.

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