Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that affects 1.5 million people in the United States. While we at Arthritis Wonder usually discuss the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis, we wanted to let you know about rheumatoid arthritis as well so that you will know the differences between the two conditions. This article will discuss the signs and common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Joint Pain
- Joint Inflammation
- Joint Stiffness
- Rheumatoid Nodules
- Joint Deformity
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is called an autoimmune disorder. This means that your immune system, which usually attacks foreign organisms in your body, starts attacking the body’s own structures instead. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the lining of your joints, called synovium. The cells responsible for the attack form a layer of fibrous abnormal tissue. This tissue releases abnormal substances into the joint, causing destruction of bone, cartilage, and ligaments. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis result from this ongoing cycle of attack and the formation of abnormal tissue.
Rheumatoid arthritis can appear in all of the joints of the body, but it usually shows up in the smaller joints first. A person with rheumatoid arthritis may have pain and swelling in the knuckles of the hands or the ankles early in the course of the disease. As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, it affects more joints of the body, including the wrists, elbows, shoulders, feet, knees, hips, neck and jaw.
How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Different from Osteoarthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis do have some symptoms in common, including joint pain and swollen joints. However, these conditions have different causes. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune response, as described above, while osteoarthritis is caused by the wearing down of the cartilage inside the joint. Because the two conditions have different causes,
they have some noticeable differences.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects the whole body, while osteoarthritis affects specific joints. Since rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic condition, meaning that it affects your whole system, people who have rheumatoid arthritis usually have symptoms all over their bodies. Joint pain and swelling usually occur in the same joints on both sides of the body, rather than just one or two joints at a time. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis also experience weakness and fatigue that is felt all over the body, while someone with osteoarthritis might experience weakness in the muscles surrounding the affected joint.
Rheumatoid arthritis can actually make you sick and experience flu-like symptoms. During a flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, a person may experience fever and loss of appetite in addition to the other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. People with osteoarthritis will only experience symptoms in the affected joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis requires specialized medications that treat the whole body. While osteoarthritis responds well to over the counter medications, such as topical treatments like Arthritis Wonder, rheumatoid arthritis is treated with prescription medications that must be taken regularly and long-term to be effective.
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can appear quickly. The disease often begins between the ages of 35 and 45 and is more common in women. Osteoarthritis gradually appears over time, as joints wear down, and is usually diagnosed in people age 60 or over.
What are the Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
There are several signs and symptoms which can indicate a rheumatoid arthritis condition. Let’s take a look at these symptoms in more detail.
1. Joint Pain
Just like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis causes severe joint pain. Unlike osteoarthritis, however, this pain is likely to settle in many joints, rather than just one or two. Rheumatoid arthritis often causes pain the hands first, especially the knuckles, thumbs, and wrists. This pain can significantly limit a person’s ability to complete daily activities, including getting dressed, cleaning, driving, and so on. Joint pain and other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis affect the joints symmetrically, so if one hand is painful, the other hand will be also.
2. Joint Inflammation
Rheumatoid arthritis also causes inflammation in the joints that results in swelling, heat, and reddening of the skin. This swelling can be quite noticeable, appearing very large, puffy and “squishy” to the touch. Pressing on this swelling with a finger will leave a dent. An inflamed joint will also feel warm or even hot to the touch and the skin may appear red while the joint is inflamed. If many joints in the body are inflamed at the same time, the person with rheumatoid arthritis may even develop a fever. This amount of inflammation makes it difficult to move the joints, as well as difficult to put on and wear tight-fitting clothing.
3. Joint Stiffness
As with other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis causes joint stiffness, especially in the morning or after long periods of inactivity. Joint stiffness can be particularly severe in the morning and many people with rheumatoid arthritis face morning stiffness find it difficult to get out of bed. Movement does relieve this kind of joint stiffness, but it can take a couple of hours to get joints moving in the morning. The same thing can happen if a person with rheumatoid arthritis has a sedentary job and sits at a desk all day. Standing and walking after long periods of sitting can be difficult because the knees and ankles have stiffened.
4. Rheumatoid Nodules
Rheumatoid nodules occur in about 25% of people who have rheumatoid arthritis. These are firm little bumps that form under the skin near the base of an affected joint. They are often seen on the backs of the hands and fingers, on the elbows and forearms, on the knees, and on the backs of the heels. Why rheumatoid nodules form is unknown. While they are not very pretty, they are most often harmless. Rheumatoid nodules can sometimes be painful, especially if the skin over a nodule becomes irritated or breaks down. In rare instances, rheumatoid nodules can form in the eyes, vocal cords, or lungs, causing more complicated problems.
A common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is fatigue. This type of fatigue isn’t the kind that means you need to go to bed at night. The inflammatory reaction that occurs in rheumatoid arthritis leaves a person feeling drained and exhausted. It also decreases the appetite. This kind of fatigue does not go away with a good night’s sleep but continues on for as long as active inflammation is present. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis experience this crippling kind of fatigue every day.
6. Muscle Weakness
After rheumatoid arthritis has been present in the body for a while, it takes a toll on a person’s muscle strength. This is partly due to the inflammation process itself, as the tendons and ligaments that connect the muscles to the bones often cross inflamed joints and become inflamed as well. Muscle weakness also results from inactivity, as a person with actively inflamed joints has difficulty participating in physical activity due to pain and stiffness. As joints become damaged, the muscles have even more difficulty moving in normal patterns, leading to additional weakness.
7. Joint Deformity
A person who has had rheumatoid arthritis for a long time may end up with joints that are so damaged they become deformed. The inflammation that occurs in rheumatoid arthritis gradually erodes bone and damages ligaments and cartilage, eventually destroying the joint. When this happens, the joint becomes unstable and can no longer hold up against the pulling forces of the remaining tendons and muscles, so the joints give way and become deformed. This happens most often in the finger joints. Bunions on the big toe are also common. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis often have finger deformities that call attention to their disease.
Ulnar drift is a deformity that happens when the ligaments pull the knuckle joints sideways, causing the fingers to “drift” toward the little finger side of the hand.
Swan neck deformity happens when the small joints of the fingers erode and the ligaments and tendons that extend the fingers pull those joints out of alignment, causing the fingers to curve on themselves until they resemble the neck of a swan.
Boutonniere deformity also occurs when the small joints of the fingers erode, and ligaments and tendons pull those joints out of alignment, in the opposite directions of the swan neck deformity.
What Are Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune disease and, just like many other autoimmune disorders, it cannot be cured. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis need to learn to live with their condition. Disease-modifying and rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can help make the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis less severe, allowing people the ability to move and participate in daily activities.
Most anti-rheumatic drugs act by suppressing the immune system, reducing its attacks on the joints and slowing the damage to the affected joints. While these suppressant medications have proven to be very effective in reducing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, they have a side effect of lowering the effectiveness of a person’s immune system overall, making them more susceptible to catching colds, viruses, and contagious diseases. People who have rheumatoid arthritis should take precautions to counteract this problem, such as getting an annual flu shot or vaccinations before traveling.
Anti-inflammatory medications that can help rheumatoid arthritis include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. These medications can cause irritation to the stomach lining, so care must also be taken when using NSAIDs for a long period of time.
Other treatments may be effective in relieving the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and restoring daily function. Treatments such as heat or cold can improve circulation in the joints. Gentle range of motion exercises can improve joint movement. Water exercise can be especially effective as it reduces gravity and supports the inflamed joints, making movement easier. In severe cases of rheumatoid arthritis, physical and occupational therapies may be needed to address mobility and daily living skills. Adaptations to daily tasks and the person’s environment may also be necessary to compensate for any loss of function due to joint damage and deformity. These treatments can help improve the quality of life when living with rheumatoid arthritis.
Some people who have rheumatoid arthritis do use topical medications for pain relief, such as Arthritis Wonder. This topical treatment contains Wogonin, a chemical compound that acts on the pain receptors in the joints to block pain signals to the brain. Arthritis Wonder has been designed to be effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis. Arthritis Wonder may work to relieve some pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis but be aware that Arthritis Wonder is most effective when used to treat osteoarthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful, systemic condition that can be debilitating if not treated in its early stages. If you suspect that you have rheumatoid arthritis, consult your doctor as soon as possible. You may be referred to a rheumatologist who can help you start a treatment plan. The earlier rheumatoid arthritis is treated, the longer you will be able to deal with and live with this disease.