What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation of joints.

RA tends to begin slowly with minor symptoms that come and go, usually on both sides of the body, which progresses over a period of weeks or months.

Symptoms of this chronic condition vary from person to person and can change from day to day. Bouts of RA symptoms are called flare-ups, and inactive periods, when symptoms are less noticeable, are called remission.

You may feel unusually tired well before any other symptoms become obvious. Fatigue can come before the onset of other symptoms by weeks or months.

It may come and go from week to week or day to day. Fatigue is sometimes accompanied by a general feeling of ill health or even depression.

Morning stiffness is often an early sign of arthritis. Stiffness that lasts for a few minutes is usually a symptom of a form of arthritis that can worsen over time without proper treatment.

Stiffness that lasts for several hours is generally a symptom of inflammatory arthritis and is typical of RA. You may also feel stiffness after any period of prolonged inactivity like napping or sitting.

Stiffness in one or more of the smaller joints is a common early sign of RA. This can occur at any time of day, whether you’re active or not.

Typically, stiffness begins in the joints of the hands. It usually comes on slowly, although it can come on suddenly and affect multiple joints over the course of one or two days.

Joint stiffness is often followed by joint tenderness or pain during movement or while at rest. This also affects both sides of the body equally.

In early RA, the most common sites for pain are the fingers and wrists. You may also experience pain in your knees, feet, ankles, or shoulders.

Mild inflammation of the joints is typical early on, causing your joints to appear bigger than normal. This swelling is usually associated with warmth of the joints.

Flare-ups can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and this pattern can be expected to increase with time. Subsequent flare-ups may be felt in the same joints or in other joints.

When accompanied by other symptoms like joint pain and inflammation, a low-grade fever may be an early warning sign that you have RA.

However, a fever higher than 100°F (38°C) is more likely to be a sign of some other form of illness or an infection.

Inflammation of tendons can create pressure on your nerves. This may cause numbness, tingling, or a burning feeling in your hands referred to as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The joints of your hands or feet may even produce a squeak or crackling noise as damaged cartilage grinds against joints when you move.

Inflammation in your joints can cause tendons and ligaments to become unstable or deformed. As the disease progresses, you may find yourself unable to bend or straighten some joints.

Although your range of motion may also be affected by pain, it’s important to engage in regular, gentle exercise.

During the early stages of RA, you may feel a variety of symptoms, including:

  • general weakness or a feeling of malaise
  • dry mouth
  • dry, itchy, or inflamed eyes
  • eye discharge
  • difficulty sleeping
  • chest pain when you breathe (pleurisy)
  • hard bumps of tissue under the skin on your arms
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss

See your doctor to get a proper diagnosis if you’re experiencing some of the early symptoms of RA.

Members of our RA Facebook community have lots of advice for living with RA:

“Exercise is the best medicine for RA, but who feels like it most days? I try to do a little bit each day, and on a good day will do more. I also find making homemade bread feels good, because the kneading helps your hands. The best part is tasting the great bread afterwards!”

— Ginny

“I’ve joined a local support group, as I find that no one else understands quite like another sufferer. I now have people I can call on and vice versa when I’m feeling really low… and it has really helped me.”

— Jacqui

Join our Facebook community for RA.

Read this article in Spanish.