A chronic inflammatory disorder that can negatively impact more than just your joints is called rheumatoid arthritis. This condition can damage a vast variety of body systems such as the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when your immune system attacks your own body’s own tissues by mistake.
Unlike the wear-and-tear damage that occurs in osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis impacts the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
The inflammation that occurs in the case of rheumatoid arthritis may even damage other parts of the body. Although new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can cause physical disabilities.
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
- Tender, warm, swollen joints
- Joint stiffness which is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
- Excessive fatigue, recurring fever, and loss of appetite
Early rheumatoid arthritis has a tendency to affect the smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.
As the disease becomes worse, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. Symptoms commonly occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
Almost 40 percent of the people who have rheumatoid arthritis experience additional signs and symptoms that do not involve the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis may even affect many non-joint structures, including:
- Salivary glands
- Nerve tissue
- Bone marrow
- Blood vessels
The signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may vary in severity and may even come and go, or be recurring. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares or bouts, alternate with periods of relative remission when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical attention if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium the lining of the membranes that surround your joints.
The resulting swelling thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint.
The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch excessively. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.
Doctors don’t know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don’t actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.
Factors that may enhance the risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Gender women are much more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
- Age rheumatoid arthritis may occur at any age, but it most commonly begins in middle age.
- Family history if a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an enhanced risk of the disease.
- Smoking cigarettes enhances your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis significantly, especially if you have a genetic predisposition for contracting the disease. Smoking is also associated with greater disease severity.
- Environmental exposure to some exposures such as asbestos or silica may increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in people. Emergency workers that have continuous exposure to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center are at higher risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Obesity people, especially women at the age of 55 and younger who are overweight or obese are at a somewhat higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis significantly increases the risk of developing:
- Osteoporosis rheumatoid arthritis itself, along with some medications used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, can enhance your risk of osteoporosis a condition that weakens your bones and makes them more prone to fracture.
- Rheumatoid nodules these firm bumps of tissue most commonly form around pressure points, such as the elbows. However, these nodules can form anywhere in the body, including the lungs.
- Dry eyes and mouth people who have rheumatoid arthritis are much more likely to experience Sjogren’s syndrome, a disorder that decreases the amount of moisture in your eyes and mouth.
- Infections the disease itself and many of the medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can impair the immune system, leading to increased infections.
- Abnormal body composition the proportion of fat to lean mass is often higher in people who have rheumatoid arthritis, even in people who have a normal body mass index (BMI).
- Carpal tunnel syndrome if rheumatoid arthritis affects your wrists, the inflammation can compress the nerve that serves most of your hands and fingers.
- Heart problems rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses your heart.
- Lung disease people with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
- Lymphoma rheumatoid arthritis enhances the risk of lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymph system.