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Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis -- Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) mainly causes symptoms of joint pain and swelling. But RA can also cause symptoms throughout the body.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can vary from person to person. They may also appear and disappear with time and treatment.

Recommended Related to Rheumatoid Arthritis

Young Adults Living With RA

Last winter, after spending a few afternoons shoveling snow, Heather Miceli, 27, woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get out of bed. “My joints had swelled up so much that I couldn’t move without crying,” she says. Two months later, the college professor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., who had always been healthy, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) -- a debilitating autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and swelling in the joints and surrounding tissues,...

Read the Young Adults Living With RA article > >

How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Your Joints

Rheumatoid arthritis mainly affects joints. It causes:

  • Inflammation
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Pain

Any joint can be affected by RA. But the joints most often affected include:

  • Knuckles of the hands
  • Toes
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Ankles
  • Knees

Rheumatoid arthritis inflames other joints less often. These include some areas of the body that most people don't realize have joints, such as the:

  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Hips

Morning stiffness is a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. The joints of RA patients with morning stiffness are particularly stiff first thing in the morning. The stiffness improves somewhat after at least an hour of movement.

RA typically involves more than one joint. Often, but not always, joints on both sides of the body (“symmetrical,” such as both wrists) are equally affected.

 

RA Symptoms Away From the Joints

Although rheumatoid arthritis almost always affects joints, it can also involve other areas of the body. The resulting inflammation can lead to varied symptoms outside the joints, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Slight fever
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Hoarseness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Painful lumps under the skin (nodules)
  • Eye pain and redness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Dry eyes (Sjogren's syndrome)

Progression of RA Symptoms

The progression of symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis varies widely. Some people with RA have a steady progression of disease with joint damage. Others have mild symptoms that never worsen.

In a few people with rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms may come in episodes or flares. These flares can be separated by months without any symptoms.

More often, symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are persistent. They occur on most days. The symptoms may be worse on some days than others.

No two people with rheumatoid arthritis may have exactly the same pattern of symptoms. Recent advances in rheumatoid arthritis treatments have resulted in better symptom control and reduced progression of disease for many people with RA.

Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Symptoms refer to what a person feels or experiences. Signs are observations a doctor makes using an exam and tests.

Signs of rheumatoid arthritis are often related to symptoms. A doctor can frequently detect swelling and stiffness in inflamed joints by examining the hands, wrists, knees, and other joints. A joint that's inflamed and swollen by rheumatoid arthritis often has a "boggy" or "mushy" texture when pressed with a finger.

Other signs of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Reduced grip strength in the hands
  • Swelling over the back of the hand (aside from the joints in the hand)
  • Limited joint motion
  • Lumps just under the skin, called rheumatoid nodules
  • Joint misalignments (permanent changes in joint shape or structure)
  • Wearing away of bones or erosions on X-rays

Doctors consider both the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis when diagnosing RA. They also use signs and symptoms when evaluating a person's progression and response to treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 08, 2014

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