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How Will My Rheumatoid Arthritis Change Over Time?

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Your RA is likely to change as time goes on. It can get worse. But there are treatments that can help, and each person responds to the disease differently. What can you expect? That depends on many things, such as:

  • How advanced your rheumatoid arthritis is at the time your doctor told you that you have it
  • Your age at the time you were diagnosed
  • How "active" your disease is

Although each case is unique, there are a few common patterns:

Long remissions. Remission means near-disappearance of symptoms without an actual cure. In a few people with RA -- about 5% to 10% -- the disease starts suddenly, and then they have no symptoms for many years, even decades.

Symptoms that come and go. About 15% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have disease that waxes and wanes slowly. They have periods of low or no symptoms that can last months between flare-ups.

Progressive rheumatoid arthritis. Most people need a long-term treatment plan and a coordinated medical team to manage the condition and slow or stop it from getting worse.

How can you tell which kind of rheumatoid arthritis you have and whether it will progress? There's no easy way, but there are some general signs that suggest you might have the progressive type. You might have progressive RA if you:

  • Have flares that last a long time or are intense
  • Were diagnosed at a young age, which means the rheumatoid arthritis has more time to become active in your body
  • Have rheumatoid nodules -- bumps under your skin that most often appear on the elbows
  • Have active inflammation that shows up in tests of joint fluid or in blood tests
  • Had a lot of damage already on X-rays when you were diagnosed
  • Have high levels of rheumatoid factor or citrulline antibody (found in blood tests)

See Your Rheumatologist

Your RA doctor can check to see how your disease has changed. If your rheumatoid arthritis is progressing, there are good treatment options to slow it down.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 11, 2014
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