What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of inflammatory arthritis. RA disease is characterized by chronic joint inflammation (in the fingers, hands, knees, feet, for example). RA may also be called rheumatoid disease because at times rheumatoid arthritis causes systemic illness that impacts many organs of the body.
What are early signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and what areas of the body are affected?
While early symptoms of RA can be mimicked by other diseases, the symptoms and signs are very characteristic of rheumatoid disease. The 16 early RA symptoms and signs discussed in this article include the following:
- Joint pain
- Joint tenderness
- Joint swelling
- Joint redness
- Joint warmth
- Joint stiffness
- Loss of joint range of motion
- Many joints affected (polyarthritis)
- Joint deformity
- Both sides of the body affected (symmetric)
- Loss of joint function
Fatigue is a very common symptom in all stages of rheumatoid arthritis, particularly when the joint inflammation is active. Fatiguein rheumatoid arthritis can be caused by the body’s reaction to inflammation, poor sleep, anemia, and medications.
The fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis that results in lack of energy can adversely affect emotions and mood, occupation, relationships with people, sex drive, productivity, attentiveness, creativity, and happiness. Fatigue from rheumatoid arthritis can also be associated with poor appetite and weight loss.
Joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the inflammation present in a joint when the disease is active. Joint pain can also occur when the disease is inactive or controlled if the joint has been damaged by rheumatoid arthritis in the past.
Active rheumatoid arthritis causes the joint to swell because of both thickening of the joint lining tissue (synovium) and because of excess joint fluid. The swollen, inflamed joint stretches and irritates the capsule that surrounds the joint. The joint capsule has nerves endings within it that immediately send pain signals to the brain.
Past rheumatoid arthritis can lead to permanent joint destruction with damaged cartilage, bone, and ligaments. When the damaged joint is used, it can cause intense pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis characteristically leads to tenderness of involved joints. This is because the inflamed joint lining tissue has irritated the nerves in the joint capsule. When the irritated joint capsule is compressed by external pressure, such as from touching the joint, it is frequently tender. The pain elicited from compression is immediate. This is one of the reasons that rheumatoid arthritis can lead to difficulty sleeping and insomnia.
Swollen joints are very common in rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes the joint swelling is minimal and can be difficult to appreciate. Other times the joint swelling is very apparent. Generally, people who are affected by rheumatoid arthritis can easily tell when their joints are swollen. The joint swelling can lead to loss of range of motion of the joint. Joint swelling in the fingers can make it hard to get rings off and on easily.