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Rheumatoid arthritis progression

Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive condition, meaning that symptoms can worsen over time.

There are treatments and lifestyle changes that can be made to help prevent flare-ups and delay progression of the disease.

The rate of progression often depends on how early the condition is diagnosed and treatment is started. Rheumatoid arthritis can also be more active in some people than others.

Rheumatoid arthritis - Remission and progression

Each person's rheumatoid arthritis is unique, and the disease affects each person differently. Over the long-term, though, there are a few common patterns.

  • Long remissions. Remission means near-disappearance of symptoms without an actual cure. About 10%-20% of people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis have a sudden onset of the disease, but then have no symptoms for many years, even decades.
  • Intermittent symptoms. About 15%-30% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have disease that waxes and wanes slowly. They have periods of mild or no symptoms that can last for months between flare-ups.
  • Progressive rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, that leaves the majority of people, who have the most common and serious form of rheumatoid arthritis. Because it's progressive, it requires a long-term treatment plan and a co-ordinated medical team to manage the treatment and slow or stop progression.

How can you tell which kind of rheumatoid arthritis you have and whether it will progress? There is no easy way, but there are some general signs that point to the progressive form of rheumatoid arthritis. You may have progressive rheumatoid arthritis if you:

  • Have disease activity of long duration or high intensity (flares)
  • Were diagnosed at a young age, which means the rheumatoid arthritis has more time to become active in your body
  • Have rheumatoid nodules -- bumps under the skin that most often appear on the elbows
  • Have active inflammation that shows up in tests of your joint fluid or in blood tests
  • Were already showing a lot of damage on X-rays when you were diagnosed
  • Have elevated blood tests of rheumatoid factor or citrulline antibody

What's the most important thing you can do to follow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis? See a rheumatologist. Your doctor will do a complete examination of your joints with laboratory tests and X-rays to see if your disease has progressed.

At later visits, your doctor can re-check your joints and do further tests and X-rays to see if the disease has progressed any more. If your rheumatoid arthritis is progressing, there are good treatment options to slow it down.

Don't overlook the effect your rheumatoid arthritis can have on your mental health. If you are having trouble coping, seek help. A multidisciplinary team involving your GP, district nurses, rheumatoid specialist nurse, occupational therapist and physiotherapist can help you deal with the long-term uncertainty and limitations of rheumatoid arthritis.

There is good news for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment is improving and, in many cases, can delay progression of this disease.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 25, 2016

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