Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation, swelling, and pain in your joints.

older man holding wrist in pain

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. This condition occurs when the immune system doesn’t work properly and begins to attack healthy cells in the joints. People with RA typically experience pain in their hands, knees, and ankles—but symptoms can appear in other parts of the body and vary from person to person. 

No two cases of RA are alike. Generally, symptoms are mild and can be unnoticeable in the early stage of RA. Most of the time, it can take weeks or months for your symptoms to progress. However, some people may experience a rapid onset of symptoms and experience painful flare-ups early on. Research on why some people may be more likely to develop symptoms suddenly is ongoing. 

In any case, understanding the symptoms of RA can help you receive a diagnosis and start treatment sooner, which may prevent serious complications from occurring. 

Joint Pain

While RA symptoms can vary from person to person, most people with this condition experience joint pain. Joint pain can feel like a burning sensation, sharp stabbing pain, or dull pressure.  

RA typically starts in the joints that connect your fingers to your hands and the toes to your feet. As your condition progresses, it may affect your wrists, ankles, and knees. People with more severe cases of RA may also experience joint pain in their elbows, shoulders, hips, and neck.  

Temporary joint pain, like soreness in your knees and wrists, can be common even in people who don’t have arthritis. People with arthritis typically experience joint pain for at least six weeks.  

Joint Swelling

People with RA may have red or swollen joints. This can affect motor function in your joints and make it difficult to pick up items, bend down, or walk. 

RA tends to affect both sides of your body simultaneously, which can change how you manage daily activities, such as typing on the computer or doing chores around the home.

Severe swelling can lead to bone erosion or damage to the bones next to your joints. 

Joint Stiffness and Deformity

People with RA may have difficulty properly using or bending their joints. If you have RA, you may experience joint stiffness upon waking up or after sitting for long periods of time. RA-related joint stiffness typically lasts for longer than 30 minutes, and it can take several hours to gain a full range of motion. 

If RA goes untreated, you may experience cartilage or bone damage, which can eventually lead to joint deformities. Following your treatment plan and doing flexibility exercises can help prevent joint issues from worsening. 

Fatigue and Weakness  

Most people with RA may feel tired or weak because of inflammation and pain in the joints. About one in six people with RA experience extreme fatigue and physical weakness. However, fatigue is different than being tired. Oftentimes, people who experience fatigue feel drained even after getting adequate sleep. 

Chronic pain due to RA can lead to a depressed mood, which can worsen fatigue. Some people may experience pain that is so overwhelming, it affects how they feel emotionally. Depression can lower energy and make you feel drained. 

Fortunately, most people with RA report being able to manage depression-related fatigue by sticking to their treatment protocol and through healthy coping strategies such as taking breaks throughout the day and speaking to a mental health professional or loved ones for support.

Rheumatoid Nodules

About 25% of people with RA will develop rheumatoid nodules or firm bumps underneath the skin. Typically, these bumps will form near affected joints and are commonly found around the knuckles, fingers, knees, and heels. 

Rheumatoid nodules can be painful during a flare-up but are usually not harmful. In some cases, ulcers can form over the nodules, which can increase pain and the likelihood of developing an infection. 

Other Symptoms

RA doesn't just affect the joints. About 40 percent of people with RA may experience symptoms in other organs and tissues. Additional symptoms of RA include:

  • Low-grade fever 
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Anemia, or a lack of healthy red blood cells
  • Swollen blood vessels that can damage nerves and organs 
  • Pulmonary fibrosis, or the scarring of lung tissue 
  • Inflammation in the heart 
  • Kidney damage as a result of RA medication

Sjogren's Syndrome

Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease that nearly 20 percent of people with RA develop. The most common symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth. These side effects occur because the glands in those areas stop producing moisture. 

This condition usually develops in people who are in an advanced stage of RA and have more frequent flare-ups or joint damage. Symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome can sometimes intensify RA flare-ups. Thus, people with both RA and Sjogren's syndrome may be less likely to achieve remission or a decrease in symptoms. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you begin to notice pain in your joints that feels worse than typical soreness, you may want to reach out to your healthcare provider. Make note of any symptoms you experience, such as swelling, stiffness, fatigue, or nodules. 

At your appointment, your provider will likely ask you what symptoms you’re experiencing, how long you have had symptoms, and about your general medical history. They may also perform a physical exam, order blood or imaging tests, or refer you to a rheumatologist, who is a specialist in diseases that affect your joints, bones, and muscles. 

A Quick Review

Rheumatoid arthritis is a common, but painful autoimmune condition that affects the joints. Inflammation can cause symptoms such as joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and fatigue. If you begin to notice these symptoms, try to reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as you can. 

Left untreated, you may experience severe side effects such as joint deformity or bone erosion. The good news is that a healthcare provider can help you find a treatment plan that works for you to better manage symptoms and slow your condition from progressing. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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