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Arthritis health centre

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic (long-term) disease. Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can come and go, and each person with rheumatoid arthritis is affected differently. Some people have long periods of remission when their rheumatoid arthritis is inactive and they have few or no symptoms. Other people may have near-constant rheumatoid arthritis symptoms for months at a stretch.

Although rheumatoid arthritis can involve different parts of the body, the joints are always affected. When the disease is active, joints become inflamed. Inflammation is the body's natural response to infection or other injury, but in rheumatoid arthritis inflammation occurs inappropriately and for unknown reasons.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms: joint inflammation

Joint inflammation is a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. It includes:

  • Stiffness. The joint is harder to use and may have a limited range of motion. Morning stiffness is one of the hallmark symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. While many people with other forms of arthritis have stiff joints in the morning, it usually takes people with rheumatoid arthritis more than an hour (sometimes several hours) before their joints feel loose.
  • Swelling. Fluid enters into the joint and it becomes puffy; this also contributes to stiffness.
  • Pain. Inflammation inside a joint makes it sensitive and tender. Prolonged inflammation causes damage that also contributes to pain.
  • Redness and warmth. The joints may be somewhat warmer and more pink or red than the neighbouring skin.

Which joints does rheumatoid arthritis affect? The hands are almost always affected, although literally any joint can display rheumatoid arthritis symptoms: the knees, wrists, neck, shoulders, elbows, even the jaw. Joints are usually affected in a symmetrical pattern -- the same joints on both sides of the body.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms that affect the entire body

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many areas of the body. These effects all result from the general process of inflammation, leading to a wide variety of symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Malaise (feeling ill)
  • Loss of appetite, which can result in weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

These symptoms have been compared to having the flu, although they are usually less intense and longer lasting.

Rheumatoid arthritis may affect other areas of your body. The involvement of multiple body areas is more common with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Rheumatoid nodules are bumps under the skin that most often appear on the elbows. Sometimes they are painful.
  • Lung involvement, due to either damage to the lungs or inflammation of the lining around the lungs, is common but usually causes no symptoms. If shortness of breath develops, it can be treated with medicines that reduce inflammation in the lungs.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis can even affect a joint in your voice box or larynx (cricoarytenoid joint), causing hoarseness.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation in the lining around the heart, but this usually produces no symptoms. If symptoms do develop, the arthritis may cause shortness of breath or chest pain. In addition, people with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to develop clogged arteries in their heart, which can lead to chest pain and heart attacks.
  • The eyes are affected in fewer than 5% of people with rheumatoid arthritis. When they are affected, the symptoms can include red, painful eyes or possibly dry eyes.

When you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, early and aggressive treatment can help prevent further symptoms as well as stop progression of the disease.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on May 31, 2012

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