Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. With RA, your immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues in your joints. This leads to inflammation, which commonly causes joints to be painful, swollen, and stiff. Inflammation can also affect other parts of your body, including the skin, blood vessels, and eyes.
In fact, eye complications are a common development of RA. About 25 percent of people with RA develop eye complications. These complications are:
- keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eyes (affects 15–25 percent of patients)
- episcleritis, or redness caused by inflammation (affects 0.17 percent of patients)
- scleritis, also redness caused by inflammation (affects 0.67 percent of patients)
Read on to see how RA affects your eyes.
How does RA affect your eyes?
RA is the result of your immune system misfiring. The resulting inflammation can affect various parts of your body, including your eyes.
The most common eye complaint for people with RA is dryness. The medical term for this is keratoconjunctivitis sicca. Inflammation from RA causes abnormalities in the tear glands (lacrimal), significantly reducing fluid secretion.
The symptoms associated with dry eyes are more common in the later part of the day, when tears from the tear gland (systemic) have dried up and evaporated. Other symptoms of this condition include:
- blurred vision
- a feeling of debris in the eye
Redness in the eyes along with RA is most likely the result of scleritis, or inflammation in the white part of the eye. Redness from scleritis won’t go away with the use of eye drops. Scleritis also can cause pain in the eyes, light sensitivity, and reduced vision.
Uveitis is another possible complication of RA, but it’s mostly seen in the juvenile form of the disease. Uveitis occurs when the uvea, the layer between the retina and the white of the eye, becomes inflamed. Symptoms include redness, pain, light sensitivity, and blurred vision.
The majority of cases of uveitis in children are caused by RA (systemic juvenile inflammatory arthritis). Uveitis is treatable, but can cause blindness if ignored.
It’s essential that you get treatment if you have RA and eye symptoms. Untreated dry eyes, scleritis, uveitis, or Sjogren’s can cause the cornea to become scratched, scarred, or ulcerated. Corneal damage can cause permanent loss of vision.
Sjogren’s is another type of autoimmune disorder that sometimes develops alongside RA. It affects the glands in the body that produce moisture, and it can cause dry and itchy eyes as well as a gritty feeling, as if sand is trapped in your eyes.
Sjogren’s can cause other symptoms, including:
- dry mouth
- difficulty swallowing and speaking
- mouth sores
- dry and cracked skin
- swollen joints and glands
Do my eye problems mean I have RA?
If you have dry or red eyes, it’s possible you have the autoimmune disorder. But many other conditions can also cause dry or red eyes.
It’s more likely you have RA if your eye problems accompany other telltale symptoms, such as:
- painful joints
- flu-like symptoms
- general weakness
- unintended weight loss
Talk to a doctor about these symptoms, especially if your eye doesn’t get better in a few days.
Treatment for eye complications
For RA, early detection is important for your treatment. You’ll be less likely to develop eye disorders from RA when you’re treating your condition.
You can treat your eye complications with eyes drops and topical lubricants. These can help relieve dryness, redness, and itching. Eye drops without preservatives are better for your eyes. For deeper inflammations that don’t respond to eye drops, your doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections or a topical steroid. You can apply the topical steroid two to four times a day to treat the underlying inflammation.
While pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints are the primary symptoms of RA, the inflammatory response of the misfiring immune system can cause a variety of other symptoms.
If you have RA, you may also have:
- skin problems
- a greater risk for infections
- lung disease
- heart conditions
- an increased risk for osteoporosis
RA is a disease that causes inflammation in your joints. But RA can also spread to other organs such as your lungs, skin, and eyes. It’s possible for RA to cause dry and red eyes, although it’s rare for RA to only cause eye complications. If you have RA, you’ll likely be experiencing other symptoms along with dry eyes.
Talk to a doctor if you’re experiencing prolonged dry or red eyes, especially if your dry and red eyes don’t respond to eye drops and topical lubricants. Continuously dry eyes can cause corneal damage, which may lead to permanent vision loss. Your doctor will be able to provide the appropriate treatment for eye relief.