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Early Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Medically reviewed by Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Written by Victoria Menard
Posted on May 5, 2021

It may be difficult to know at first that you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The condition’s symptoms tend to develop gradually and may be mistaken for a strain, an injury, or normal aches and pains associated with aging.

That said, there are some early signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis that you and your health care provider can keep an eye out for. Once you first notice symptoms, it’s important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible: An early diagnosis and treatment may help you prevent joint damage and disability, enabling you to maintain your quality of life.

Early Signs and Symptoms of RA

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. It occurs when the immune system attacks the body's healthy tissues. The first signs and symptoms of RA tend to come on gradually over the course of several weeks, although in some cases, it may take only a matter of days for RA symptoms to progress. These early signs and symptoms often develop before the characteristic symptoms of RA — joint pain and stiffness — become apparent.

Why an early RA diagnosis may prevent joint degeneration

General Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis may first present with general symptoms, including fatigue, muscle pain, and malaise (feeling unwell).

Joint Symptoms

RA can affect any joint in the body, causing pain and stiffness. In its early stages, however, the disease tends to affect the small joints first — particularly those of the hands and feet. Additionally, although RA tends to affect joints on both sides of the body symmetrically, this may not be the case in early-stage RA. Stiffness of the joints in the mornings is particularly common and may last for several hours.

Joint Swelling

Early on in the course of RA, X-rays may only show soft tissue swelling. Swelling of the proximal interphalangeal joints (middle knuckle) and metacarpophalangeal joints (knuckles) in the hands are common early symptoms for people with RA.

Abnormal Sensations

Joint inflammation due to RA can exert pressure on the nerves surrounding the affected joints. As a result, people with early-stage RA may experience abnormal sensations like numbness and tingling in their hands or feet.

Low-Grade Fever

Low-grade fevers (roughly between 99 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit) may occur as one of the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis prior to diagnosis. As one myRAteam member wrote, “I’ve had very little pain lately but keep running a random fever of about 100. I haven’t had fevers like this since I was first diagnosed.”

The Importance of Early Diagnosis

If you notice any of the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, speak to a health care provider, like a rheumatologist, as soon as possible. Getting an early diagnosis is vital to managing the disease and preventing long-term damage.

The Arthritis Foundation recommends a doctor’s visit if your joint pain lasts longer than three days or if it occurs several times a month.

From the time of your first signs and symptoms, there is a window of opportunity of three to six months in which it is most effective to treat early-stage RA. If left untreated, the condition can progress, potentially causing irreversible joint erosions. You may be able to stop or reduce the disease activity using disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate.

If you receive an RA diagnosis within the first three months of symptom onset, aggressive treatment with DMARDs may stop some or all of the joint damage associated with the condition. You may also be able to prevent frequent RA flare-ups in the future.

Meet Your Team

Managing the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis disease can be a challenge. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. By joining myRAteam — the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones — you can connect with more than 140,000 members from around the world who understand life with RA.

What were your first signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis? Share your story in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.

Posted on May 5, 2021
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Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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