Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. When
someone has RA, their immune system mistakenly attacks the joints as well as
other organs and tissues.
According to Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of RA
are directly related to joint damage. Additional symptoms are due to the
widespread effects of an overactive immune system.
Rheumatoid arthritis is named
after its effects on the joints. However, the autoimmune symptoms it causes can
affect systems throughout the body.
Joint Pain and Swelling
The primary symptom of RA is joint damage. Symptoms
usually begin in the smaller joints. RA typically starts in the fingers and
wrists. This causes pain and swelling in the hands. Other joints commonly
affected by RA include:
Affected joints may feel warm and spongy to the touch. According
to Mayo Clinic, joint damage caused by RA is
almost always symmetrical. This means that if your left hand is affected, your
right hand will be as well.
Symmetrical symptoms are one of the things that
distinguish RA from osteoarthritis (OA). Since OA is caused by physical wear
and tear on joints, it’s less likely to be symmetrical. OA is the type of
arthritis most people associate with aging.
Fever and Fatigue
Although joint pain is the most characteristic symptom
of RA, it’s not always the first symptom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many people with RA first experience a low-grade
fever (under 100 F) and extreme fatigue for four to six hours after waking up.
However, these early signs and symptoms may not be automatically associated with
RA. Fever and fatigue can be caused by far too many other health conditions,
even the common cold. There is usually no reason for a doctor to suspect RA
until joint symptoms appear.
Prolonged stiffness upon waking is another symptom that
can help distinguish RA from other forms of arthritis.
RA is also associated with stiffness after a long period
of inactivity, such as sitting or lying down. This stiffness usually lasts an
hour or more. In general, stiffness from other types of arthritis lasts for
shorter periods of time.
According to Mayo Clinic, rheumatoid nodules are hard,
flesh-colored lumps that may appear under the skin of the arms. They can range
from pea-size to walnut-size. They may be either movable or firmly connected to
tendons under the skin. Rheumatoid nodules are a symptom of advanced RA.
RA can affect a number of organs throughout the body.
However, this type of damage is not common. The symptoms below are associated
with more severe or advanced disease.
Dry Mouth and Eyes
Rheumatoid arthritis is often associated with Sjögren's syndrome. This is a
condition where the immune system attacks the salivary glands and tear ducts.
This can cause:
- dry or gritty sensations in the eyes, mouth, and throat
- cracked or peeling lips
- difficulty talking or swallowing
Some people with RA also experience other discomfort in
their eyes including:
Pleurisy is a severe tightness or sharp pain in the
chest when breathing. It’s caused by inflammation of the membrane surrounding
Advanced RA can cause severe joint damage. The hands and
fingers may bend at unnatural angles. This can give them a gnarled and twisted
appearance. Such joint deformities can also interfere with movement. Other
joints that may become damaged in this way include the: