Approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This is a chronic autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system attacks your own joints and tissues. This can lead to a number of painful symptoms, from early rheumatoid arthritis symptoms of fatigue and joint stiffness to more advanced symptoms once the condition has progressed. Here’s what you need to know about the most common signs of rheumatoid arthritis.
What are the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis?
Many people experience joint stiffness when they get out of bed in the morning. We stretch out our muscles, helping tension and stress dissipate. For those who suffer from RA, though, they’ll experience excessive morning stiffness that lasts for 30 minutes or more. This can be one of their first signs that something’s wrong.
Next, they may notice exactly where they’re feeling pain and soreness. Most often, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers experience symptoms in small joints, like those in their:
Characteristically, RA affects joints on both sides of the body. Not everyone experiences this, but those who do have a clearer signal. It can help them differentiate between a recent injury and something more serious.
Finally, that inflammation in the body can lead to a host of other signs and symptoms, as we’ll discuss below. Most notably, they may experience fatigue, dry eyes, a slight painless limp, or a mild low-grade fever.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
RA doesn’t just affect the joints–it affects the whole body. The list of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms is long because it can affect everyone differently. You may have this condition even if you’re not experiencing every one of these symptoms. Symptoms may also come and go.
The most common rheumatoid arthritis symptoms include:
- Joint pain and swelling for six weeks or longer
- Joint stiffness that is worse in the morning or after inactivity
- Extreme tenderness in the joints
- Redness and warmth in the joints
- Injuries that don’t seem to heal
- Numbness and tingling, especially in the hands and feet
- Limited range of motion
- Locked joints
- Multiple and symmetrical joints affected
- Dry mouth and eyes
- Periods of “flare-up” and remission, when symptoms increase or decrease
Let’s discuss each in more detail.
1. Joint pain and swelling
When people think of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, they often think first of joint pain and swelling. And there’s a reason–it’s one of the most characteristic signs. When inflammation is present in a joint, it irritates the capsule surrounding the joint, leading to pain. This occurs both when the disease is active, and after it’s been controlled if damage has occurred.
You’ll probably experience joint swelling after trying to take off an old ring, or put a new one on. At first, swelling can be slight. As MedicineNet explains: “Active rheumatoid arthritis causes the joint to swell because of both thickening of the joint lining tissue (synovium) and because of excess joint fluid.”
If you’ve suffered from joint pain and swelling, no matter how slight, for six weeks or longer, it could be a sign that you have RA.
2. Joint stiffness
Another one of the earliest RA symptoms is joint stiffness. People will usually experience stiffness first thing in the morning, or after sitting or napping for a sustained period of time. If this stiffness lasts 30 minutes or more, it could point to a diagnosis. However, some people experience stiffness for hours after getting out of bed.
Doctors actually use the duration of a patient’s morning stiffness to help them measure the severity of the disease progression.
3. Joint tenderness
If you’re suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, any external pressure on your joints can elicit pain. Joints may be so tender that it’s hard to
- Wear certain types of clothes
- Receive hugs from loved ones
- Walk or wear certain types of shoes
4. Joint redness and warmth
Similarly, many people who suffer from RA also experience redness and warmth in their joints. This occurs from widened capillaries near inflamed regions. Redness and warmth may be minimal, or they can be a constant symptom.
5. Injuries that don’t seem to heal
We’ve all had nicks and bumps over the years. But, if you had a previous injury that just won’t heal, the symptoms could actually be related to rheumatoid arthritis. Always get injuries, especially those in the joints, checked out. And, talk to your doctors if injuries don’t get better even with treatment.
General fatigue, achiness, and lethargy are all hallmark symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Fatigue can stem from a number of things, including:
- Insomnia or poor sleep because of joint pain and tenderness
- Your body’s reaction to symptoms
- Medication use
7. Numbness and tingling
Often, RA sufferers will have heightened symptoms in their hands and feet. One of the most common is tingling and numbness.
Health explains: “The sensation is similar to the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone. What happens is that the swelling in the arm compresses the nerves going into the hands. The sensation is often worse at night.”
8. Limited range of motion
If your joints are aching and stiff, it can naturally lead to a more limited range of motion. However, as the disease progresses, this can become worse. Damage over time in the joint can limit movement to the point of permanent immobility for some patients. Because of this severe symptom, it’s always important to talk to a doctor early to prevent these and other more serious issues.
9. Locked joints
Likewise, progressive affects of RA can lead to joints that lock up and can’t move.
10. Multiple and symmetrical joints affected
Another characteristic pattern of rheumatoid arthritis, as opposed to other similar conditions, is that this condition often affects multiple joints, on symmetrical sides of the body. RheumatoidArthritis.net explains:
“RA typically has a distinctive pattern of joint involvement, with the same joints on both sides of the body affected (this symmetrical pattern may not be evident in the early stages of the disease). In the early stages of RA, small joints tend to be affected more than large joints. For instance, the joints located at the base of the fingers and toes and the joints located in the middle of the fingers. However, in some patients RA may begin with pain in a large joint (shoulder or knee) that moves from one joint to another and comes and goes.”
If you’re experiencing pain, stiffness, or tenderness in the joints of your lower body, it can lead to limping.
Anemia, or iron deficiency, is a common side effect of other rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Chronic inflammation can lead bone marrow to decrease the amount of red blood cells your body uses. A lowered red blood count can lead to less iron in the body. While many RA symptoms can be hard to treat, this is one with multiple treatment options.
A persistent low-grade fever can be one of the earliest and easily-missed signs of rheumatoid arthritis. HealthLine notes that:
“When accompanied by other symptoms like joint pain and inflammation, a low-grade fever may be an early warning sign that you have RA. However, a fever higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) is more likely to be a sign of some other form of illness or an infection.”
14. Dry mouth and eyes
Mayo Clinic notes that: “About 40 percent of the people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don’t involve the joints.” One of the chief complaints that’s not related to the joints occurs in the mouth and eyes. It’s often connected to Sjorgren’s Syndrome, a disorder that 10-15% of RA patients experience.
The John Hopkins Arthritis Center explains that this autoimmune condition can lead to:
- A reduction in tear production (keratoconjunctivitis sicca)
- Oral dryness (xerostomia) with decreased saliva of poor quality
- Reduced vaginal secretions
You may also experience:
- Excess eye discharge
- Eyes that are itchy or inflamed
- Sensitivity to light
- Impaired vision
15. Periods of “flare-up” and remission
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms aren’t static. You can be feeling fine one day, and experience brutal symptoms the next. Periods of heightened activity and inflammation are called “flare-ups.” When you’re experiencing less inflammation, it’s known as a remission state.
“Flare-ups can also have different characteristics of pain and discomfort for different people, depending on how aggressively the immune system is working to attack healthy body cells. Often times, rheumatoid arthritis patients don’t know exactly what causes their flare-ups, although physical activity is a common trigger for the pain and joint stiffness. Additionally, flare-ups can last varying amounts of time for each person. But, sometimes, they are followed by the remission of symptoms.”
What are advanced rheumatoid arthritis symptoms?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that gets progressively worse, especially without treatment. Therefore, if you suspect that you’re suffering from RA, talk to your doctor immediately and track any symptoms you’re experiencing.
Left untreated, this condition can lead to more severe symptoms, such as:
- Inflammation near the heart and lungs, that can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, or a persistent cough
- Trouble with balance if RA affects the spine
- Skin rash, if the disease has progressed outside the joints
- Permanent vision loss if the retina detaches from its normal position due to inflammation
- Joint deformities, known as rheumatoid nodules, that can range in severity from small bumps to extreme deformation of the hands, elbows, arms, or other areas
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, it’s important to start tracking your symptoms. The more information you have, the better your doctor can help with a diagnosis.
There isn’t one exact test to diagnose RA. Typically, you’ll work closely with a rheumatologist and undergo a number of blood tests, physical exams, or X-rays to determine if you’re suffering from this condition. Once diagnosed, there are treatments that can help manage symptoms and prevent future damage.
It’s not rheumatoid arthritis–what else could it be?
To find out what’s causing your joint pain and other symptoms, reach out to a pain specialist today. If they think you’re experiencing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, they’ll refer you to a trusted rheumatologist. If your issues are more closely connected to another condition like fibromyalgia, a pain specialist has many treatment plans available to help reduce symptoms related to your condition.
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