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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

Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in the early stages can be difficult. There is no single test that can clearly identify rheumatoid arthritis. Instead, doctors diagnose rheumatoid arthritis based on factors that are strongly associated with the disease. The American College of Rheumatology uses this list of criteria: Morning stiffness in and around the joints for at least one hour. Swelling or fluid around three or more joints simultaneously. At least one swollen area in the wrist,...

Read the Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis 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.

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