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Rheumatoid Arthritis - What Happens

The course of rheumatoid arthritis is hard to predict. It usually progresses slowly, over months or years. In some people it doesn't get worse, and symptoms stay about the same. But in rare cases, symptoms come on rapidly, within days.

Symptoms can come and go. You may have times in your life when joint pain goes away on its own for a while. This is called remission.

If the disease progresses, joint pain can restrict simple movements, such as your ability to grip, and daily activities, such as climbing stairs. It is a common cause of permanent disability. But early treatment may control the disease and keep it from getting worse.

Rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to get worse when:

  • A rheumatoid factor blood test is positive.
  • A blood test for the antibody CCP (cyclic citrullinated peptide) is positive.
  • The disease fails to respond to therapy.
  • Bumps (nodules camera.gif) form rapidly.
  • Many joints camera.gif are affected.
  • X-rays show early loss of bone or cartilage.

Joint damage

The ongoing inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis affects the tissues that line joints. It causes a breakdown in cartilage and loosens ligaments and tendons that support the joints. The resulting joint destruction camera.gif can lead to deformed joints.

The pain, stiffness, fatigue, and whole-body (systemic) symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can be disabling. Over time, the deformity caused by the disease can lead to difficulty with daily activities. Specific joint problems may also occur later in the course of the disease.

The hands and wrists camera.gif and feet camera.gif may be deformed. The hands are the most common location for deformities.

Inflammation of the knees, if not controlled by treatment, can cause erosion of cartilage and can later lead to the need for knee replacement surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis can also damage the cervical spine, or neck. This damage can limit how easily you can move your neck. In rare cases, the damage can pinch a nerve or affect the spinal cord and cause numbness, pain, weakness, or paralysis in the arms or legs.

Other problems

In a small number of severe cases, the disease may damage other organs, such as the eyes and lungs.

People who have rheumatoid arthritis seem to develop plaque deposits in arteries (atherosclerosis) earlier than people who do not have rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation may play a role in speeding up plaque development. When plaque develops in the arteries in the heart, it is called coronary artery disease (CAD) and it increases the risk of a heart attack. When plaque develops in the arteries in the neck, it increases the risk of stroke.

Rheumatoid arthritis and some of the medicines used to treat it can increase the risk of osteoporosis.

It is common for people with rheumatoid arthritis to feel depressed. These feelings may be caused by pain and progressive disability.

Most women with rheumatoid arthritis can become pregnant and have a healthy baby.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 06, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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