8 Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints and other body parts.

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, knees, ankles and feet—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.

Injuries 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 a more common sign in younger people, said 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 their knee is swollen, explained Dr. Mandl. "I have seen people who have had two arthroscopic surgeries and extensive physical therapy in their knee, and they have rheumatoid arthritis."

Foot Pain

Pain or inflammation is the forefoot is another sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

In a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, participants with rheumatoid arthritis showed a high frequency of pronated foot position (in which the foot leads in), which leads to foot disorders such as rearfoot valgus, flattened longitudinal arch and hallux valgus.

In the group with foot disorders, the degree of foot pain was high, and foot function was altered.

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, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Numbness or Tingling in Your Hands

One sign of rheumatoid arthritis is carpal tunnel syndrome, which is marked by tingling in the wrist and hands. The sensation is similar to the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone, said Dr. Mandl.

This happens because the swelling in the arm compresses the nerves going into the hands. The sensation is often worse at night.

If you go to a healthcare professional with these symptoms and don't have (or tell them about) other RA symptoms, you may be diagnosed with only carpal tunnel syndrome.

Issues With Your Eyes

People with RA are also at risk for Sjogren's 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, said 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 recommended telling a healthcare professional—even an eye doctor or other specialist—about additional symptoms you're having in any part of the body.

Aching Joints

One of the most predominant symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is aching in the joints, says the CDC. 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 but can last for days or months, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

It can also be symmetrical, meaning both hands, feet, knees, or ankles will be affected at the same time. Additionally, the pain is almost always associated with joint swelling

Achy and Stiff Mornings

Another characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis is stiffness in the joints in the morning, says the Arthritis Foundation.

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.

The right kind of exercise can help alleviate stiffness for people with RA and osteoarthritis pain.

Locked Up Joints

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 that it cannot bend. This 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, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, which can also lead to cysts.

Nodules Near Your Joints

Another sign of rheumatoid arthritis is 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, said Dr. Mandl.

The nodules can at times mimic gout, another form of arthritis.

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