Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on the Body Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on the Body

The Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on the Body

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes problems primarily in the joints, but can cause symptoms throughout the body.

Inflammation of the finger joints causes stretching of the ligaments and tendons. This leads to the erosion of bone and cartilage and deformity of the joints. Sometimes, joints appear red and feel warm to the touch. They can become tender and painful. Read more.


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Chronic inflammation of the wrists can lead to pinched nerves or carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes numbness and tingling in the wrist and hand. Your bones may appear more prominent and you may even hear a squeaking sound when moving your wrist. Read more.

A common symptom of RA is aches or pains in the shoulders. The pain is usually felt on top of the shoulder and may radiate to the neck. Damage to the shoulder joints can limit your range of motion. Some people often hear a popping or cracking sound when they move their shoulders. Read more.

People with RA often experience stiffness and swelling in the knees. It’s generally worse in the morning or after a period of being sedentary. Straightening or bending the knee properly may be difficult, hindering actions like climbing stairs or walking. Your doctor can see your knee damage through X-rays. Read more.

RA can affect the joints of the ankles, making it difficult to navigate uneven surfaces. Eventually, standing for long periods of time or walking can become painful. Read more.

RA can lead to many problems with the toes and fronts of the feet, such as claw toes and bunions. In some cases, the toes may cross over each other or stick out so that it’s uncomfortable to wear shoes. Some people with RA feel pain under the ball of the foot. Read more.

Weak supporting ligaments can cause the arch of the foot to fall, forcing the front of the foot to point outward. As the disease progresses, bones will continue to shift out of place. Walking, especially on uneven surfaces, becomes more difficult and painful. You may need special shoes to make being mobile more comfortable. Read more.

An antibody called the rheumatoid factor is found in the blood of some, but not all people with RA. Having the antibody doesn’t always mean you’ll develop the disease. RA can lower the production of red blood cells and lead to anemia. Read more.

A rare complication of RA is inflammation of the blood vessels (rheumatoid vasculitis). This can lead to problems with the nerves, skin, heart, and brain. Read more.

RA increases the risk of blocked or hardened arteries. In rare cases, it can lead to inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis) or the heart muscle (myocarditis), which can cause congestive heart failure. Read more.

Skin nodules are hard bumps that form under the skin on the arms, especially around the elbow. Read more.

People with RA often have extremely dry eyes, creating a sandy or gritty feeling. Chronically dry eyes increase risk of eye infection. Read more.

A chronically dry mouth can make eating and swallowing difficult. It can also lead to gum disease, cavities, and infections in the mouth. Read more.

People with RA may experience shortness of breath due to inflammation of the airways. Read more.

RA causes damage to the lungs, which can lead to chest pain. Your doctor may notice a crackling sound while listening to your breathing with a stethoscope. Read more.

RA in the Fingers
Shouldering the Pain
RA in the Ankles
Fallen Arches
Blood Vessels
Bumpy Skin
Desert Mouth
Take a Lungful
It’s All in the Wrist
Weak in the Knees
Toe Trouble
It’s In The Blood
At the Heart of It
Sandpaper Eyes
Blocked Airways

See the Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis on the Body

RA is a progressive autoimmune disease that mainly affects the joints. According to Arthritis Foundation, about 1.5 million people in the United States live with RA. Anyone can get RA, but it generally begins between the ages of 30 and 60. Women are diagnosed at almost three times the rate of men.

The cause of RA is unknown, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that genetics, infections, or hormonal changes may play a role. Disease-modifying medications can help slow the progression of RA. Other medications, combined with lifestyle changes, can help manage individual symptoms and improve quality of life.

Skeletal System

One of the first signs of RA is inflammation of the smaller joints in the hands and feet. Most of the time, symptoms on one side of the body correspond with symptoms on the other side of the body. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness, which is more pronounced in the morning. Some patients may feel a tingling or burning sensation. And symptoms can come and go in “flares” followed by a period of remission.

Symptoms can occur in any of the body’s joints, including shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles. People with RA often develop bunions, claw toes, or hammer toes. As the disease progresses, cartilage and bone are damaged and destroyed. Eventually, supporting tendons, ligaments, and muscles weaken. This can lead to a limited range of motion or difficulty moving the joints properly. In the long term, joints can become deformed.

Having RA also puts you at greater risk of developing osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones. People with osteoporosis are at increased risk of bone fractures and breaks. Chronic inflammation of the wrists can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, making it difficult to use your wrists and hands. Weakened or damaged bones in the neck or cervical spine can cause chronic pain. X-rays can illuminate the extent of the damage.

Circulatory System

RA can affect the system responsible for making and transporting blood throughout your body. A simple blood test can reveal the presence of an antibody called the rheumatoid factor. Not all people with the antibody develop RA, but it’s one of many clues doctors use to diagnose the condition.

People with RA have an elevated risk for developing anemia. This is due to a decrease red blood cell production. They also have a higher risk of blocked or hardened arteries. In rare cases, RA can lead to inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis), the heart muscle (myocarditis), or even congestive heart failure.

A rare but serious complication of RA is inflammation of the blood vessels (rheumatoid vasculitis). Inflamed blood vessels weaken and expand or narrow, interfering with blood flow. This can lead to problems with the nerves, skin, heart, and brain.

Skin, Eyes, Mouth

Rheumatoid nodules are hard lumps caused by inflammation that appear under the skin, usually near joints. They can be a troubling, but usually aren’t painful.

As many as four million people in the United States have an inflammatory disease called Sjogren’s syndrome, according to the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. About half of those people also have RA or a similar autoimmune disease. When the two diseases are present, it’s called secondary Sjogren’s syndrome.

Sjogren’s causes severe dryness—especially of the eyes. Patients describe it as a burning or gritty feeling. Prolonged dry eyes increase the risk of eye infection or corneal damage. It’s rare, but RA can cause inflammation of the eye.

Sjogren’s can also cause dry mouth and throat, making it difficult to eat or swallow, especially dry foods. Chronic dry mouth can lead to tooth decay, gingivitis, and oral infections. Some patients experience swollen glands in the face and neck, dry nasal passages, and dry skin. Women may also feel dryness in their vaginas.

Respiratory System

RA increases the risk of inflammation or scarring of the linings of the lungs (pleurisy) and damage to lung tissue (rheumatoid lung). Other problems include blocked airways (bronchiolitis obliterans), fluid on the chest (pleural effusions), high blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension), scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis), or nodules on the lungs.

Although RA can damage the respiratory system, not everyone has symptoms. Those who do may experience shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pains.

The Immune System

Your immune system acts as an army, protecting you from harmful substances like viruses, bacteria, and toxins. It does this by producing antibodies to attack these invaders. Occasionally, the immune system mistakenly identifies a healthy part of the body as a foreign invader. When that happens, antibodies attack healthy tissue.

In RA, the joints are under attack. The result is intermittent or chronic inflammation throughout the body. Autoimmune diseases are chronic and treatment generally focuses on slowing progression and easing symptoms. Some people have more than one autoimmune disorder.

Overall Health

The pain and discomfort of RA can make it difficult to sleep. Many people with RA feel overwhelming fatigue and a lack of energy. In some cases, RA flare-ups cause short-term fever. Lack of appetite and lack of exercise can contribute to poor overall health.

Early diagnosis and treatment may help slow the progression of the disease. Disease-modifying medications, symptom relievers, and lifestyle changes can greatly improve the quality of life for people with RA.


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