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What Are the Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is long-term disease. Its symptoms can come and go, and it’s different for each person.

Some people have long periods when their disease isn’t active. They have few or no symptoms during this time. Others feel it for months at a time. Treatment helps.

When It’s in Your Joints

RA always affects the joints. It makes them inflamed. The classic signs are:

  • Stiffness. The joint is harder to use and doesn't move as well as it should. It’s especially common in the morning. While many people with other forms of arthritis have stiff joints in the morning, it takes people with rheumatoid arthritis more than an hour (sometimes several hours) before their joints feel loose.
  • Swelling. Fluid enters the joint and makes it puffy.
  • Pain. Inflammation inside a joint makes it sensitive and tender. Over time, it causes damage and pain.
  • Redness and warmth. The joints may be warmer and more pink or red than skin around it.

RA almost always affects the hands, but it can strike any joint, including the knees, wrists, neck, shoulders, elbows, feet, hips, even the jaw. There is usually a symmetrical pattern -- the same joints on both sides of the body, like both wrists or both hips.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms That Affect the Entire Body

Rheumatoid arthritis can go beyond your joints. You may feel:

It can feel a little bit like the flu, but these symptoms are usually less intense and last longer.

Some people with RA also get rheumatoid nodules, which are bumps under the skin that most often appear on the elbows. Sometimes they are painful.

RA can affect your lungs. The inflammation can damage the lungs or the lining around the lungs. This may not cause symptoms. If you get shortness of breath, your doctor can treat it with drugs that reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Likewise, it can inflame the lining around your heart. You probably wouldn’t notice symptoms from that. There’s a chance you could feel shortness of breath or chest pain, which you should call your doctor about.

RA can affect a joint in your voice box, causing hoarseness.

In a few people with RA -- less than 5% -- the disease makes their eyes red, painful, or dry.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 11, 2014
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