When people think of arthritis, they think of achy wrists and knees. But rheumatoid arthritis can be much more than that.
"RA goes way beyond the joints," says M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at the Cleveland Clinic. The inflammation of RA can affect your whole body. This raises your chance of infections, heart disease, and other problems. The drugs used to treat RA can affect your health, too.
That's why good medical care and a healthy lifestyle are so important with RA. If you take care of your overall health, you can push those risks back down.
How Does RA Affect Your Body?
RA triggers your immune system to attack your own body. When this happens, swelling and damage can develop just about anywhere in your body.
If you take steps to manage your overall health well, your risk is much lower. If you've had severe RA for a long time or haven't been getting treatment for it, you're much more likely to have other health problems.
So what sorts of problems can RA cause?
- Feeling bad. RA can cause a lot of vague symptoms, such as fatigue and low-grade fever.
Heart and artery disease. This one of the biggest problems. "RA seems to increase your risk of heart problems at least as much as diabetes does," says Clifton O. "Bing" Bingham, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.
Eye and mouth problems. RA can cause swelling of your eyes called scleritis. It's also linked with Sjögren’s syndrome, a disease that can dry out your eyes and mouth.
- Rheumatoid nodules. You may get hard lumps under your skin, especially in your fingers or elbows. They’re harmless, but they can be painful.
- Weak bones. RA and its treatment raise your chance of getting osteoporosis. This means your bones may break more easily.
- Infections. Both RA itself and the medications you take for it may raise your risk of infections.
Depression. Life with a chronic disease can make you depressed. And if you're depressed, you may be less likely to eat well, exercise, or take your medication. This could make your RA worse.
Lung problems. RA raises your chance of having lung inflammation and infections.
- Vasculitis. Your blood vessels may become inflamed, which can sometimes cause skin ulcers, nerve damage, and other problems caused by the loss of blood supply.
Now, the Good News
Now, this list may seem pretty scary. But remember: Although people with RA have a higher risk of some of these problems, your personal risk may be quite small, Bingham says.
"As we've been treating RA more aggressively, we're seeing less and less of these complications," Bingham says. For instance, nodules and vasculitis are much less common than they were in the 1990s.