8 Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
What exactly is rheumatoid arthritis—and how do you know if you have it?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that mainly affects the body's joints, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The condition, per the CDC, commonly affects the joints in the hands, wrists, and knees—and occurs when the lining of those joints becomes inflamed, damaging the joint tissue. That damage can eventually lead to long-lasting or chronic pain, unsteadiness, and deformity.
The symptoms of RA—which can include pain, stiffness, tenderness, and swelling—can go through phases where they're worse (known as a flare) and better (known as remission). But some symptoms of RA can mimic those of other conditions—here's what to look out for, and how to know if it's due to RA or something else.
Your injuries seem to take a long time to heal.
It’s possible to think you have an injury—such as a sprained ankle that doesn’t seem to heal—when the symptoms are actually due to RA.
This is more common in younger people, says Lisa A. Mandl, MD, MPH, assistant attending rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
One day a patient is playing soccer and the next day her knee is swollen, she says. "I have seen people who have had two arthroscopic surgeries and extensive physical therapy in their knee and they have rheumatoid arthritis."
You have numbness or tingling in your hands.
One symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is carpal tunnel syndrome, which is marked by tingling in the wrist and hands. Dr. Mandl says 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.
If you go to a doctor with these symptoms and don’t have (or tell him or her about) other RA symptoms, you may be diagnosed only with carpal tunnel syndrome.
You have foot trouble.
One area in which people often have RA-related pain or inflammation is the forefoot—women often stop wearing heels and head to a podiatrist due to the pain.
Some people with RA may also develop pain in the heel because of plantar fasciitis, a common foot disorder caused by swelling of the tissue at the bottom of the foot, near the heel.
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You notice issues with your eyes.
People with RA are also at risk for Sjogrens syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause dryness of the eyes, mouth, nose, throat, or skin due to inflammation that stops glands from releasing moisture, says Dr. Mandl.
This can happen even in the early stages of RA, but it’s unlikely to be the only symptom.
Most people with dry eyes head to an eye doctor to find out the cause, but Dr. Mandl recommends telling your doctor—even an eye doctor or other specialist—about additional symptoms you’re having in any part of the body.
You think arthritis is just due to old age.
One of the most predominant symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is aching in the joints. People often think their pain is due to overexertion or osteoarthritis, the type of arthritis common in old age.
This achiness can also be misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome (fatigue is another symptom of RA).
RA joint pain is not fleeting; it usually lasts longer than a week. It can also be symmetrical, meaning both hands, feet, knees, or ankles will be affected at the same time.
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Your joints are achy and stiff in the morning.
Another characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis is stiffness in the joints in the morning.
Again, this is also a common problem in osteoarthritis, which can cause pain after long periods of inactivity, like sleeping.
The difference between the two is that osteoarthritis pain usually subsides in about a half hour. Stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis will last much longer, possibly for a good chunk of the day.
Your joints lock up.
People with RA can sometimes experience locked joints, particularly in the knees and elbows. This happens because there’s so much swelling of the tendons around the joint, the joint cannot bend. It can lead to cysts behind the knee that can puff out and inhibit motion.
The symptom can be mistaken for a meniscus tear, a knee joint injury that's common in sports, and which can also lead to cysts.
You notice nodules near your joints.
These are firm lumps that grow under the skin near the affected joints. They often appear at the back of the elbows, and sometimes people get them in the eyes.
They're more common in people who have advanced rheumatoid arthritis, but occasionally show up earlier, says Dr. Mandl.
The nodules can at times mimic gout, another form of arthritis.
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