Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes inflammation of the lining of the joints, especially in the hands and fingers. Signs and symptoms include red, swollen, painful joints, and reduced mobility and flexibility.

Because RA is a progressive disease, symptoms typically get worse. If left untreated, it can cause severe damage to the joints and serious complications in the major organs. However, there are a number of effective treatments, and proper treatment is critical to managing the progression of RA.

As RA progresses, it can cause pain and inflammation to other joints in the body besides the hands. This includes:

  • wrists, elbows, and shoulders
  • ankles, knees, and hips
  • spaces between the vertebrae in the spine
  • ribcage

If left untreated, the long-term damage to the joints can be significant. Fibrous tissue may form around the joints, and bones may fuse together. This can cause deformity and a loss of mobility. Of course, with the hands being the most commonly affected, this loss of mobility can cause serious issues with quality of life.

When RA isn’t properly treated, serious complications can develop in the major organs, including the skin, heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Effects on the skin

The same immune response that attacks the lining of the joints can also impact the skin. Rashes are common in those with untreated RA, as are blisters and lumps of inflammatory tissue under the skin called nodules.

Effects on the heart

People with uncontrolled RA may have inflammation that spreads to the blood vessels, causing them to narrow. This can lead to blockages and clots in the arteries and smaller blood vessels. These blockages can double your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. RA can also lead to pericarditis, or inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the heart.

Effects on the lung

Lung problems that result from untreated RA include:

  • Scar tissue that develops over time due to long-term
    inflammation. This tissue can trigger breathing difficulties, chronic cough, and
  • Rheumatoid nodules in the lungs, similar to those that
    appear under the skin. Occasionally, these nodules rupture, which could cause a
    lung to collapse.
  • Pleural disease, or inflammation of the tissue that
    surrounds the lungs. Fluid can also build up between the layers of the pleura,
    leading to breathing difficulties and pain.

Effects on the kidneys

Research has shown that people with RA have about a 25 percent chance of developing kidney disease. A combination effect of inflammation, medication side effects, and other contributing factors seem to cause the kidney problems. Because of this, it’s important that your doctor monitors your kidney function regularly.

As soon as you’re diagnosed with RA, your doctor will likely prescribe a type of medication called DMARDs, or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. These drugs, which include newer biologic medications, can be extremely effective at slowing or even stopping the progression of RA.

Other treatments your doctor may recommend include additional prescription drugs, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen, and regular exercise or physical therapy.

With so many potential complications from RA, the importance of staying on track with your treatment plan is clear. If you have questions or concerns about any aspects of your treatment, be sure and discuss them with your doctor. Open lines of communication between you and each of your healthcare providers can help ensure successful treatment of your RA, and a better quality of life for you.