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Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms: What You Need to Know

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and pain in the joints, as well as other parts of the body. It is estimated that about 1.3 million people in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis, and it is more common in women than men. Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, early diagnosis and treatment can help manage the symptoms and prevent further joint damage.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, and we'll talk about its symptoms, causes, risk factors, and probable complications. We'll also go over some of the ways this issue can be diagnosed and treated.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that affects the joints in the body. In people with RA, the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, which causes inflammation and pain. Over time, this inflammation can lead to joint damage, deformity, and disability.

RA can affect any joint in the body, but it is most commonly seen in the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, and ankles. The symptoms of RA can vary from person to person, but they typically include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and fatigue.

How Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Differ from Osteoarthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is often confused with osteoarthritis, which is a common form of arthritis that occurs when the cartilage in the joints wears down over time. However, there are several key differences between these two conditions.

Osteoarthritis is typically caused by wear and tear on the joints, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. Osteoarthritis tends to affect older adults, while rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age. In osteoarthritis, the pain and stiffness are typically worse in the morning or after prolonged periods of inactivity, while in rheumatoid arthritis, the pain and stiffness are often worse in the afternoon or evening.

Arthritis and Joint Supplements

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Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some of the risk factors for RA include:

  • Genetics: People who have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Gender: Women are more likely to develop RA than men.
  • Age: Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 30 and 60.
  • Smoking: Smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Obesity: People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The early signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can be subtle and may come and go over time. Some of the early signs of RA include:

Joint pain and stiffness: The pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis are typically worse in the morning or after periods of inactivity.

Fatigue: People with RA may feel tired and run down, even if they have not engaged in physical activity.

Low-grade fever: A low-grade fever is a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis.

Loss of appetite: People with RA may experience a loss of appetite or feel nauseous.

Numbness and tingling in hands: Numbness and tingling in the hands can be an early sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

Common Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, the symptoms can become more severe and persistent. Some of the common symptoms of RA include:

Joint swelling and redness: The joints may become swollen, red, and tender to the touch.

Limited range of motion: As the joints become more inflamed, it may become difficult to move them through their full range of motion.

Joint deformity: Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint deformity and even bone erosion.

Flares: Periods of increased disease activity, known as flares, are common in rheumatoid arthritis. During a flare, the symptoms of RA can become more severe.

Extra-articular manifestations: Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyes, lungs, and heart.

Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis can be challenging, as the symptoms can be similar to other forms of arthritis. To diagnose RA, your doctor will typically perform a physical exam and order blood tests to check for inflammation and autoantibodies. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, ultrasounds, or MRIs, may also be ordered to evaluate joint damage and inflammation.

Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis

While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are several treatment options available to manage the symptoms and prevent further joint damage. Treatment for RA typically involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and self-care measures.

Medication

There are several types of medication that are commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, including:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs can help relieve pain and inflammation in the joints.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): DMARDs are designed to slow down the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and prevent joint damage.
  • Biologic response modifiers: Biologics are a type of DMARD that specifically target the immune system to reduce inflammation.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are a type of medication that can help reduce inflammation in the joints. However, they can cause several side effects if used for an extended period of time.

Lifestyle Changes

Making certain lifestyle changes can also help manage the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. These may include:

Exercise: Regular exercise can help improve joint mobility, reduce pain and stiffness, and increase muscle strength.

Diet: A healthy diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can help reduce inflammation in the body.

Rest: Resting the joints and getting enough sleep can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Self-Care Measures

There are several self-care measures that people with rheumatoid arthritis can take to manage their symptoms, including:

Using heat or cold therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected joints can help relieve pain and inflammation.

Practicing relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing, can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can exacerbate the symptoms of RA.

Avoiding triggers: Identifying and avoiding triggers, such as certain foods or activities, can help prevent flares.

Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to several complications if left untreated, including:

Joint damage and deformity: Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint damage and deformity.

Cardiovascular disease: People with rheumatoid arthritis are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke.

Lung disease: Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to complications such as pulmonary fibrosis.

Final Thoughts

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints. It is important to recognize the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent further joint damage and potential complications. While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are several treatment options available to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. 

Making certain lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and a healthy diet, can also help manage the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. By staying informed and taking an active role in your healthcare, you can better manage the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and improve your overall quality of life.

Howard E. Stanton, MD

Howard Stanton, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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