Early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can include bodily pain and weakness. But after weeks or months, you may develop other symptoms, such as joint swelling. Symptoms may vary from person to person.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that causes the chronic inflammation of joints.
RA tends to begin slowly with minor symptoms that come and go, usually on both sides of the body. These symptoms progress over a period of weeks or months.
Symptoms of this chronic condition vary from person to person and can change as time goes on. Bouts of RA symptoms are called flare-ups. Inactive periods, when symptoms are less noticeable, are called remission.
While RA can affect anyone, it most commonly presents between the ages of 30 and 50 and more often in women. The early stage symptoms of RA don’t always include swelling and redness in the joints, but there can be subtle signs that something is up. Some of the early stage symptoms include:
- tenderness and pain in certain areas of your body
- a noticeable increase in fatigue (it takes energy for the body to deal with inflammation)
- weakness in certain areas of your body that weren’t there before
- generally feeling unwell
Once RA inflammation has been active in your body for a period of weeks or months, you’ll begin to notice more obvious signs that something is up.
Swelling, redness, and warmth in joints
Rheumatoid arthritis attacks the lining of your joints, and when this inflammation flares up, your joints may become red, and feel warm to the touch. They might also swell.
Because it takes energy for your body to fight inflammation, you may notice a marked increase in fatigue and tiredness while doing the same activities you’ve always done.
If this fatigue lasts more than a few weeks — even if you don’t notice any other symptoms — you could be dealing with an RA flare.
Fatigue is sometimes accompanied by an overwhelming “I don’t feel good but don’t know why” sensation or even depression.
Morning stiffness is one of the main symptoms of many types of arthritis, including RA.
If certain joints feel stiff when you first wake up and that stiffness lasts longer than 30 minutes, you could be dealing with an RA flare.
It’s common for joints to feel more mobile after prolonged activity.
General joint pain and stiffness
In addition to morning joint stiffness, you may also experience general joint stiffness throughout the day, especially after a period of inactivity.
Some of the first areas RA stiffness typically affects are the wrists and certain joints in the hands and feet, but it’s also possible to experience pain and stiffness in your knees or shoulders. Usually, both sides of your body will be affected.
When accompanied by other symptoms like joint pain and inflammation, a low-grade fever may be an early warning sign that you’re having an RA flare.
Numbness and tingling
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.
Decrease in range of motion
Inflammation in your joints can cause tendons and ligaments to become unstable or deformed. If the disease progresses without treatment, you may find yourself unable to bend or straighten some joints.
Although your range of motion may also be affected by pain, engaging in regular, gentle exercise can help ease the ache and even allow for a bit more movement.
There are a few other RA symptoms that affect more than just your joints. These include:
- loss of appetite
- dry eyes and mouth (caused by a related symptom, Sjogren’s syndrome)
- rheumatoid nodules, which are hard lumps that grow beneath the skin in places like the elbow and hands
- weight loss
- chest pain
- nerve or skin damage
The most commonly affected areas during the onset of RA are the small joints in your hands and feet. This is where you may first feel stiffness and an ache.
It’s also possible for RA inflammation to affect your knees and hips. Because the disease presents differently in different people, it can go on to affect almost any joint.
Your organs are another area that can be disrupted by RA inflammation:
- Your heart muscle can become damaged.
- Your lungs can become scarred.
- Blood vessel damage can lead to subsequent skin and nerve issues.
RA can become worse the longer it’s left untreated. It’s important to visit your doctor if you’ve been living with some of these symptoms for more than a few weeks, especially if you’ve been noticing joint stiffness that takes a while to loosen up in the mornings.
Even if it’s not RA, persistent fatigue and a general sense of illness can be the precursor to many inflammation-related issues, so the sooner you’re seen by a physician, the better.
There’s no single test that can reveal an RA diagnosis. Instead, you’ll most likely be diagnosed through blood tests, joint and organ examinations, and X-ray or ultrasound images.
If a positive rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is found, you’ll probably be referred to a rheumatologist, a doctor who’s had extra training around the treatment of diseases that affect the muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons.