Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is more than just joint pain. This chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease causes your body to mistakenly attack healthy joints and leads to widespread inflammation.

While RA is notorious for causing joint pain and inflammation, it can also cause other symptoms throughout the body. Read on to learn more about the possible symptoms of RA and its overall effects on the body.

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The effects of rheumatoid arthritis on the body

RA is a progressive autoimmune disease that mainly affects your joints. According to Arthritis Foundation, about 1.5 million U.S. people live with RA.

Anyone can get RA, but it generally begins between the ages of 30 and 60. It also tends to affect women nearly three times more than men.

The exact cause of RA is unknown, but 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 the effects and in turn improve your overall 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 affect both sides of the body at once.

Common symptoms include pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness, which is more pronounced in the morning. Morning RA pain can last for 30 minutes or longer.

RA can also cause tingling or burning sensations in the joints. Symptoms can come and go in “flares” followed by a period of remission, but the initial stages can last at least six weeks.

Symptoms of RA can occur in any of the body’s joints, including your:

  • fingers
  • wrists
  • shoulders
  • elbows
  • hips
  • knees
  • ankles
  • toes

RA can also result in:

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. This in turn can increase your 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.

Your doctor may order X-rays to investigate the extent of joint and bone damage from RA.

Circulatory system

RA can affect the system responsible for making and transporting blood throughout your body, too.

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 this condition.

RA increases your risk for anemia. This is due to a decreased production of red blood cells. You may 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, or RA rash). 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, and mouth

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

As many as 4 million U.S. people have an inflammatory disease called Sjogren’s syndrome, according to the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation. About half of these individuals 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. You may notice a burning or gritty feeling. Prolonged dry eyes increases the risk of eye infection or corneal damage. Though it’s rare, RA can also cause inflammation of the eye.

Sjogren’s can also cause a dry mouth and throat, making it difficult to eat or swallow, especially dry foods. Chronic dry mouth can lead to:

You may also experience swollen glands in the face and neck, dry nasal passages, and dry skin. Women may also feel vaginal dryness.

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:

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

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 tissues.

In RA, your immune system attacks your joints. The result is intermittent or chronic inflammation throughout the body.

Autoimmune diseases are chronic, and treatment focuses on slowing progression and easing symptoms. It’s also possible to have more than one autoimmune disorder.

Other systems

The pain and discomfort of RA can make it difficult to sleep. RA may lead to extreme fatigue and a lack of energy. In some cases, RA flare-ups can cause flu-like symptoms such as:

  • short-term fever
  • sweating
  • lack of appetite

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

It’s important to keep your doctor informed of any changes in symptoms you experience with your RA, so you can adjust your treatment plan as necessary.