How Will My Rheumatoid Arthritis Change Over Time?

Everybody's different when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Over the long run, your symptoms may not be the same as a friend or neighbor who also has the disease. Just how you'll feel depends on a lot things, such as:

  • How advanced your RA was when you learned you had it
  • Your age when you were diagnosed
  • How "active" your disease is

Although every situation is different, there are a few common patterns in the way RA plays out over the years:

Long remissions. When you're in one of these periods, your pain and stiffness goes away or gets much better, but you aren't cured.

In a few people with RA -- about 5% to 10% -- the disease starts suddenly, and then they have no symptoms for many years, even decades.

Symptoms that come and go. This happens to about 15% of people with rheumatoid arthritis. You may have periods of few or no problems that can last months between flare-ups.

Progressive rheumatoid arthritis. Most people in this situation need a long-term treatment plan and a coordinated medical team to manage the condition and slow or stop it from getting worse.

How can you tell which kind of rheumatoid arthritis you have? There's no easy way, but there are some general signs that suggest you might have the progressive type that can get worse over time:

  • Flares that last a long time or are intense
  • You were diagnosed at a young age, which means the disease has more time to become active in your body
  • Rheumatoid nodules -- bumps under your skin that most often appear on the elbows
  • Active inflammation that shows up in tests of joint fluid or in blood tests
  • Your doctor spotted a lot of damage on X-rays when you were diagnosed
  • High levels of rheumatoid factor or citrulline antibody in blood tests

See Your Rheumatologist

Your RA doctor can check to see how your disease has changed. If it's getting worse, there are good treatment options to slow it down.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on December 15, 2016



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Harris, E., Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology, 7th edition, W.B. Saunders, 2005. 

Krishnan, E., American Journal of Medicine, Oct. 1 2003. 

Lee D. The Lancet, Sept. 15, 2001.

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