Common Symptoms and Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Symptom of rheumatoid arthritis.
Photo Courtesy: Chaichan Pramjit/iStock

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain. An autoimmune disease is when your body’s immune system turns on your body and attacks healthy tissues and organs. It is important to see your doctor and get the right diagnosis. This will help you get the right treatment plan to manage your condition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a cure, so it is important to manage your symptoms. Read on to learn more about the common symptoms and treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. 

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a relatively rare type of arthritis. Like other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can affect the joints in your hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and feet. But, the most common joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis are the fingers and hands. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is also a systemic disease. This means it has the potential to cause damage to multiple organ systems throughout the body. In some cases, it can cause damage to your heart, lungs, blood vessels, eyes, and skin. 

This health condition causes inflammation that could damage your joints permanently. In many cases, the joints become twisted and deformed. Reliable treatment can help you manage your rheumatoid arthritis and slow its progression.  

Who Is at Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is rare, and only about 40 per 100,000 people worldwide have it. Anyone can develop rheumatoid arthritis. However, some people have a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, including:

  • Age: It’s more common for people to start showing symptoms between the ages of 65 to 80
  • Sex: Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in females than in males. 
  • Family History: If you have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, your risk of developing it increases. There are multiple genes that contribute to this family risk.
  • Smoking: Smoking increases your risk and can increase the severity of your symptoms if you already have them. 
  • Obesity: Obesity is having a body mass index (ratio of weight to height) over 30. Obesity makes rheumatoid arthritis worse because it releases specific types of proteins, known as cytokines, that can cause inflammation. 
  • Western diet: Eating a diet rich in calories and low in fiber increases your risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

The first symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may be mild and only affect smaller joints, such as your hands. However, inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis causes more pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness. This can cause limitations to your daily activities, such as dressing yourself, cooking, and using your hands. As your rheumatoid arthritis progresses, these symptoms can eventually spread to larger joints, including the hips, wrists, shoulders, knees, and elbows.

One of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is joint pain that happens in the morning. If you have joint pain and swelling that remains for more than 30 minutes after you wake up in the morning, talk to your doctor. 

Another symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is a symmetrical component of joint pain. This means the same joints are affected on both sides of the body. 

Around 4 out of 10 people with rheumatoid arthritis have symptoms unrelated to the joints. These can be symptoms related to any of the organ systems in your body. For example, it can cause eye problems, such as dryness, sensitivity to light, and vision problems. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nodules under the skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nerve pain
  • Anemia

If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor because there are many potential causes for these symptoms.

Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis

It can be difficult to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis because the symptoms overlap with other diseases and because there is not a single test that can give you the correct diagnosis. Your doctor will:

  • Speak with you to get a full history of your symptoms
  • Perform a physical exam, including your joints
  •  Send you for bloodwork. These blood tests may include certain inflammatory markers and proteins that are indicators of rheumatoid arthritis. 
  • Send you for imaging of your joints if needed. This includes x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (also called MRI). 
  • Referred you to a specialist doctor, called a rheumatologist, as part of your workup

Medical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Your doctor will likely prescribe medications to help with your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and slow down the disease’s progression. These medications may include:

  • Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (also called NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and naproxen 
  • Prescription disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (also called DMARDs), like methotrexate or sulfasalazine
  • TNF inhibitors, which stop inflammation, including etanercept or infliximab
  • Steroids 
  • Biologic response modifiers, such as rituximab

Non-Medical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

In addition to your medical treatments, your doctor may prescribe lifestyle changes to help with your symptoms. These include:

  • Diet rich in anti-inflammatory properties, such as nuts, berries, and tomatoes
  • Intermittent fasting may provide some symptom relief
  • Apply heat and cold to the painful joints – this can include hot showers and ice packs
  • Wearing orthotics – your doctor can recommend the splints or inserts that are best for you
  • Physical therapy and occupational therapy
  • Low impact exercise – yoga and stretching can be helpful to prevent joint stiffness
  • Managing your weight – a healthy diet and active lifestyle will help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Getting plenty of sleep

What’s Next?

If you have joint pain and are concerned about rheumatoid arthritis, you should speak with your doctor. Rheumatoid arthritis is more rare than other kinds of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis. However, your doctor can help you figure out which kind you have. It’s better to get started with treatment earlier, so don’t wait to make your doctor’s appointment.