Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects each person a little differently. Symptoms depend on the severity of the condition and can appear or disappear at any time. Symptoms worsen during exacerbations (called flares) and may subside during periods of remission. RA is a progressive disease, meaning joint damage tends to worsen over time. Joint damage caused by RA cannot be reversed.
Although most people think of RA as a disease of the joints, it is actually a systemic disease that can cause inflammation in many parts of the body. Treatment can effectively manage many RA symptoms and slow progression.
RA typically impacts the joints symmetrically — affecting the same joint on both sides of the body. Joints commonly affected include the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, ankles, and knees. Joints are often swollen, stiff, warm, reddened, and painful. Left untreated, RA can cause joint damage that may lead to deformity and disability. Stiffness can be more intense in the morning or after a period of inactivity. Baker’s cysts — painless swellings also called popliteal cysts — may form behind the knees.
RA can cause skin rashes, ulcers, and the development of rheumatoid nodules — firm lumps under the skin.
As a systemic disease that impacts the whole body, RA can cause episcleritis, scleritis, conjunctivitis, and uveitis. These types of eye inflammation can involve pain, redness, vision changes, and light sensitivity. Left untreated, scleritis and uveitis can progress and lead to loss of vision.
Fatigue is a very common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis due to high levels of inflammation in the body. Rheumatoid arthritis can also be associated with anemia, or low red blood cell count, which can contribute to fatigue. RA can also cause abnormal bleeding. Depression and anxiety are common for people with RA, as they are for people living with any chronic disease. Some people with RA experience weight loss.
Rheumatoid arthritis can promote inflammation anywhere in the body, leading to problems such as vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), which can cause life-threatening organ damage. Pericarditis, or inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart, is another potential complication of RA that can cause chest pain. RA can also cause inflammation of the lungs resulting in chest pain, cough, and shortness of breath.
People with RA are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and high cholesterol, particularly if they are obese. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking, and eating a balanced diet can help counteract the risk.
In the majority of cases, rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed in people between ages 30 and 60. However, a juvenile form of RA may develop in children under age 17.
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms may appear during a flare and diminish during a remission period. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that does not currently have a cure. In most people, symptoms can be effectively treated with medication and lifestyle changes.
Rheumatoid arthritis can show up as swollen or disfigured joints, such as toes that curl up (clawed toes) or that twist and overlap with one another, or fingers that twist and point outward.