Think of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and you probably think of the stiff, painful, and inflamed joints that characterize the disease. But what you might not know is that RA complications can occur in many parts of the body. The autoimmune process that wreaks havoc on the joints can also affect the eyes, lungs, skin, heart and blood vessels, and other organs. The medications you take for RA can have unwanted side effects as well. And, dealing with a chronic disease like RA day in and day out may cause emotional distress. Many people with RA suffer from depression.
To manage the complications of rheumatoid arthritis, it's important to recognize problems early and get appropriate treatment. Here are some potential problems you should be aware of:
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1% of the population worldwide, but still misunderstanding swirls around this common and severe joint condition.
"There are so many misconceptions out there about rheumatoid arthritis," says Paul Kremer, MD, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at Albany Medical College in New York.
"Arthritis is common, and rheumatoid arthritis often gets confused with the other kinds of arthritis in people's minds,” he says.
Plus, rheumatoid arthritis is still mysterious...
One-fifth of people with rheumatoid arthritis develop lumps of tissue called rheumatoid nodules, usually under the skin, particularly on the elbows, forearms, heels, or fingers. The nodules, which may develop gradually or appear suddenly, can be an indication of more severe disease activity. Rheumatoid nodules can also occur in other areas of the body, such as the lungs and heart.
RA-related inflammation of the blood vessels, or vasculitis, can cause changes to the skin and surrounding tissue that can appear as ulcers.
Other types of rashes or skin changes related to RA or medications may be seen in patients. It's important to alert your doctor regarding any skin rash or sores.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect the eyes in several ways. Inflammation of the episclera, a thin membrane that covers the sclera, or white of the eye, is a common complication of RA. It is usually mild, but the eye can become red and painful. Scleritis, inflammation of the white of the eye, is more serious and can lead to vision loss.
Having rheumatoid arthritis also puts you at risk of Sjogren's syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the lacrimal glands, which produce tears. This can cause your eyes to feel gritty and dry. If not treated, dryness can lead to infection and scarring of the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the eye) and cornea. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, ask your doctor about the need for regular eye exams.