How RA Affects Your Overall Health

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on September 01, 2014
3 min read

When most people think of arthritis, they think of achy wrists and knees. But rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another story.

"RA goes way beyond the joints," says M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Treatment Center at the Cleveland Clinic. The inflammation that's part of the condition can affect your whole body. This raises your chance of infections, heart disease, and other problems. The drugs used to treat the disease can affect your health, too.

That's why good medical care and a healthy lifestyle are so important with RA. If you take care of those things, you can lower your risks.

"As we've been treating RA more aggressively, we're seeing less and less of these complications," says Clifton O. "Bing" Bingham, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

RA triggers your immune system to attack your own body. When this happens, swelling and damage can develop just about anywhere in your body.

When you take steps to manage your overall health well, your risk is much lower. If you've had severe RA for a long time or haven't been treated for it, you're much more likely to have other health problems, such as:

  • Feeling bad. RA can cause a lot of vague symptoms, such as fatigue and mild fever.
  • Heart disease. "RA seems to increase your risk of heart problems at least as much as diabetes does," Bingham says.
  • Eye and mouth problems. RA can cause swelling of your eyes. Doctors call this “scleritis.” It's also linked with Sjögren’s syndrome, a disease that can dry out your eyes and mouth.
  • Rheumatoid nodules. You may get hard lumps under your skin, especially in your fingers or elbows. They can be painful.
  • Weak bones. RA and its treatment make you more likely to get osteoporosis. This means your bones may break more easily.
  • Infections. Both RA itself and the medications you take for it can make infections more likely.
  • Depression. RA, or any long-term disease, can be tough. If you're depressed, you may be less likely to eat well, exercise, or take your medication. This could make your RA worse.
  • Lung problems. RA raises your chance of having lung inflammation and infections.
  • Vasculitis. Your blood vessels may become inflamed, which can sometimes cause skin ulcers, nerve damage, and other problems.

Remember: Although people with RA have a higher risk of some of these problems, your personal chance of developing them may be quite small, Bingham says. Some of these problems, like nodules are vasculitis, are much less common than they used to be.

You can do a lot for your health:

  1. Take your meds. Remember: RA treatment -- with drugs that slow or stop the disease -- helps your joints.
  2. See your rheumatologist. Medical problems are more likely if your disease is severe or not treated. With regular checkups and screening, your RA doctor can catch problems before they become serious.
  3. Watch for infections. See your doctor at the first sign. If you delay, your symptoms may be much harder to treat.
  4. Protect your heart. Like anyone at risk for heart disease, you should stick to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Get advice from your doctor. But a healthy diet, regular exercise, and not smoking are all important.
  5. Get your vaccines. They are especially important because you have a higher risk of infection. Ask your doctor about vaccines for flu, pneumonia, pertussis, and shingles.
  6. See other specialists. To prevent eye problems, see an eye doctor once a year. You may need bone density tests and screening tests by a skin or heart doctor. If you think you might be depressed, see a mental health counselor or therapist. Your doctor can give you a referral.
  7. Stay upbeat. Focus on what you can do. You and your doctor can handle whatever comes up.