Painful, swollen joints are a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. But for people with RA, it's not the only thing to watch out for.
A result of the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues, rheumatoid arthritis requires more than just managing the pain. Other symptoms that might seem unrelated to the condition may pose a threat.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is primarily a disease of the joints. But the disease and many of the medications used to treat it can also affect the skin, causing problems as diverse as sun sensitivity, rash, and firm lumps of tissue called nodules.
“This is a disease process, not just something that happens in the joints,” rheumatologist Joan Bathon, MD, tells WebMD. “It can be in all your tissues, causing problems wherever inflammation occurs.” Bathon serves as chief of rheumatology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
People with more severe rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have other complications. But it can also happen in milder cases.
Here are the top 10 symptoms rheumatoid arthritis patients should never ignore.
1. Shortness of breath or chest pain
Because rheumatoid arthritis can affect the blood vessels and muscle of the heart, people with the condition are at a greater risk for heart attacks and heart failure.
“Chest pains or shortness of breath are big red flags,” says rheumatologist Brian Mandell, MD, PhD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center.
If you’re getting winded easily, you could also have a lung infection. Or you could have some form of interstitial lung disease, which causes lungs to become inflamed and scarred, Mandell says. Fluid might also be surrounding the lungs, which would require drugs and drainage to treat.
Seek medical attention immediately if you’re having these problems, even if you've never had heart or lung issues before.
2. Numbness or tingling
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause connective tissues in the hand or foot to become inflamed and push up against a nerve, causing numbness and tingling. As a result, you might experience weakness or clumsiness, or even nerve damage.
This type of swelling can happen in tissues throughout the body. But it most commonly occurs around the wrist area, causing carpal tunnel syndrome, Mandell says.
If you experience numbness or tingling, you need to be evaluated by your rheumatologist or another health care provider right away to determine the cause.
3. Inability to move or raise your hand or foot
Compared to numbness or tingling, suddenly not being able to raise or move a hand or foot is a much more severe complication of rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s also a rarer occurrence, involving damage to nerves that are connected to muscles.
“It’s like having a heart attack for the nerves,” Bathon tells WebMD. She advises seeking emergency treatment for this symptom; not doing so could lead to permanent paralysis.
4. Spots on or around your fingertips
Little red or black spots on or around the fingernails may mean that the tissue in those areas has died from inflamed small blood vessels. Although very uncommon, the spots can signal an advanced form of inflammation, says Bathon, who suggests promptly seeing a rheumatologist.
If the symptom goes untreated, it may ultimately lead to losing fingers or toes.