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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) most often affects multiple joints throughout the body and may involve the same joints on both sides of the body (example: right hand and left hand are both affected). The symptoms of RA vary from mild to severe or develop quickly or slowly over time depending on the person. Though RA is a chronic condition, symptoms usually flare up and subside intermittently. Some people have symptoms that get worse over time, while others have long periods without symptom flares.

Hallmark symptoms of RA include:

  • Increased pain and stiffness in the morning and after inactivity—common in multiple joints
  • Morning stiffness and pain that usually lasts 30-60 minutes
  • Red, swollen, tender, warm joints
  • Deformed, misshapen joints, especially the hands
Inflamed Joint
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Because inflammation of RA can affect many areas of the body it may also cause:

  • Intense fatigue, decreased energy
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fever and sweats
  • Depression
  • Problems sleeping
  • Bumps occurring under the skin—rheumatoid nodules

RA Complications

RA can affect other parts of the body, causing serious health complications. This is especially true if RA remains untreated. Complications of RA include:

  • Joint damage in the spine which can weaken the small bones and supporting tissues in the neck.
    • This can result in dislocation of the cervical spine
    • Dislocation can compress the spinal cord
  • Connective tissue disorders—Inflammation can compress nerves in the joints, which may affect sensation and mobility.
  • Respiratory conditions—Inflammatory responses damage and scar lung tissue making breathing difficult.
  • Cardiovascular problems
    • Inflammation in blood vessel walls narrows the arteries. Narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to the heart and brain, making the heart pump harder, which can lead to heart failure.
    • Blood clots can get trapped in narrowed arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
    • Inflammation of the heart muscle or the covering of the heart.
  • Inflammation of the artery walls—arteritis.
  • Eye problems—dryness, pain, redness, sensitivity to light, and impaired vision

Revision Information

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Foundation website. Available at: http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis. Accessed November 29, 2016.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal-and-connective-tissue-disorders/joint-disorders/rheumatoid-arthritis-ra. Updated August 2015. Accessed November 29, 2016.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health%5FInfo/Rheumatic%5FDisease/default.asp. Updated February 2016. Accessed November 29, 2016.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115261/Rheumatoid-arthritis-RA. Updated September 30, 2016. Accessed November 29, 2016.

  • Wasserman AM. Diagnosis and management of rheumatoid arthritis. Am Fam Physician. 2011;84(11):1245-1252.