Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), unlike osteoarthritis, affects more than just your joints. RA is an autoimmune disease that can also affect your organs and cause symptoms that range from mild to severe. Treatment can prevent or delay many of the complications of RA.
RA not only causes joint pain and stiffness. It can also cause long-term problems with bone and joint health.
Progressive inflammation from RA can destroy the cartilage and bone around affected joints. Severe loss of cartilage can lead to bones becoming deformed and fusing. This can cause the joint to become immobilized.
Joint damage is often irreversible. Total joint replacement surgery may be an option for some joints, like the knees.
Early and aggressive treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) may prevent or delay joint damage.
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. Some reasons for this include:
- RA and osteoporosis being more common in older women and smokers
- the use of corticosteroids in the treatment of RA
- the potential for RA to 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, or even medications named bisphosphonates.
Both RA and its treatment can affect quality of life in a number of ways.
Pain from RA may wake patients several times during the night, preventing restorative sleep. RA patients may also have fibromyalgia, which can disturb sleep.
Joint damage and pain can keep you from performing normal everyday tasks. It may become difficult to perform such simple tasks as getting dressed or using a computer mouse.
RA symptoms can also affect your ability to work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that people with RA are substantially more likely to:
- change jobs
- reduce work hours
- retire early
- lose their job
RA especially affects the work life of service workers and people whose jobs are physically demanding.
The stress of RA and the lifestyle changes it causes can lead to:
- loss of self-esteem
- feelings of helplessness
- clinical depression
- anxiety disorders
RA increases the risk of other conditions as well. People with RA are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and infections.
Anemia is a low level of red blood cells in the body. It causes:
Widespread inflammation caused by RA can lower production of red blood cells. This makes anemia more common among RA patients, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Rheumatoid lung is a group of lung conditions that may be found in RA patients. These 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)
Symptoms of rheumatoid lung include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- persistent cough
RA sometimes causes inflammation in or around the heart. It can cause both myocarditis and pericarditis. Pericarditis is inflammation of the membrane covering the heart. Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle itself.
Both conditions can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF is a serious condition in which the heart cannot adequately pump blood to the rest of the body, and fluid collects in the lungs.
People with RA also have an increased risk of:
- heart attack
- hardening of the arteries
- blood vessel inflammation
Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition commonly linked to RA. The disease attacks moisture-producing cells, such as the salivary and tear glands.
Sjogren’s syndrome is most prevalent in women. It’s characterized by:
- dry eyes
- dry mouth and increased dental cavities
- vaginal dryness
- problems with swallowing and talking
Sjogren’s can also cause lung, kidney, digestive, and neurological problems.
It’s important to get the proper treatment for RA as early as possible. Proper RA care can increase the likelihood of remission and reduce the amount of joint damage and inflammation you experience. There are many treatments available, ranging from physical and occupational therapy to medications and surgery. Work closely with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that works for you.