Article featured on WebMD, Medically reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Rheumatoid arthritis can have many symptoms. The most common are stiff, painful joints and fatigue.
But this disease causes inflammation in many body parts, so you may have symptoms that you don’t realize are related to RA. Some are signs of serious complications that put your organs, or even your life, at risk.
If you have any of these symptoms, don’t try to deal with them on your own. Call your doctor right away.
Both RA and medications to treat it, like steroids, cause your bones to become weaker. You’re more likely to break a bone if you fall. Exercise, especially weight-bearing activity like walking, helps to keep your bones strong.
RA makes you more likely to get heart disease. Over time, plaque builds up in your arteries. Doctors call this atherosclerosis. This can lead to a heart attack. Chest pain is a common symptom.
RA is a possible cause of a painful heart problem called pericarditis. That’s when thin layers of tissue around your heart get inflamed. You may feel severe chest pain that’s easy to mistake for a heart attack.
Even though your chest pain may not be a heart attack, if you have it, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.
RA sometimes causes dry eyes. This makes you more likely to get an eye infection.
People with RA could get another autoimmune condition called Sjögren’s syndrome. It often leads to dry mouth, nose, eyes, vagina, or skin. Your lips or tongue may dry out, crack, and get infected.
It’s rare, but RA can cause inflammation in the white part of your eye, called the sclera. The symptoms are mostly redness and eye pain. You might have blurry vision. If you notice these signs, see your doctor.
Work With Your Doctor to Prevent RA Complications
With RA, it’s important to treat more than just your joints. Talk to your doctor to tailor a plan.
It can be a sign of infection. RA medications like biologics and steroids slow down your immune system. While they ease joint pain and swelling, it’s harder for you to fight off bugs like the flu. RA makes you more likely to get an infection just because the disease wears down your immune system.
Mild fever is also one sign of an RA flare. That’s when inflammation gets out of control. If it gets too high, your doctor will check for infection.
There may be a slightly higher risk of hearing loss with RA.
Tinnitus, or ringing in your ears, can be a side effect of treatments like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
RA is tied to depression, anxiety, and other mood problems. That’s because the disease causes pain, fatigue, and stiffness that make it harder to do the things you enjoy. Depression and anxiety could also come from inflammation.
Some people with RA get fibromyalgia. This illness causes muscle pain and often leads to depression and anxiety. Stress makes all of your symptoms worse.
If your mood changes seem to take over your life, talk to your doctor. Depression and anxiety can become serious if you don’t treat them.
Numbness or Tingling
RA sometimes affects the small nerves in your hands or feet. They might feel numb or like you’re being stuck with pins and needles.
If these tiny blood vessels in your hands or feet shut down, your fingers or toes may feel cold or numb. They could even change color when it’s cold outside and look white, red, or blue.
Rheumatoid vasculitis, which affects blood vessels, can also cause numbness, tingling, burning, or pain in your hands or feet due to damaged nerves. If your hands or feet are so numb that they drop or go limp when you try to raise them, see your doctor right away.
Numbness and tingling are side effects of biologics, too.
Stomach Pain or Indigestion
RA and medicines used to treat it are linked to mouth and stomach ulcers, stomach bleeding, acid reflux, diarrhea, and constipation. Painful diverticulitis (inflamed pouches in your GI tract) and colitis (an inflamed colon) are also possible if you have RA.
RA drugs like NSAIDs often cause ulcers or an upset stomach.
Belly pain is sometimes a sign of a rare RA complication called rheumatoid vasculitis — when inflammation spreads to your blood vessels. Weight loss and lack of appetite are other symptoms. Vasculitis is serious, so see a doctor right away.
If you have a hard time getting your breath and can’t figure out why, maybe RA is to blame. Some people with the disease, especially men who smoke or used to smoke, are more likely to get serious lung problems.
When RA inflammation causes scar tissue to form in your lungs, you might notice chronic cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and weakness.
RA may inflame the tissue that lines your lungs. That can lead to shortness of breath or pain or discomfort when you breathe.
See your doctor right away if you have unusual breathing problems or a cough that won’t go away.
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