Rheumatoid arthritis afflicts more than a million people in the United States. Because treatment is most effective when the disease is caught in its earliest stages, it is important to recognize the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis.
A normal joint consists of two smooth bone surfaces that slide along one another when bent. In individuals with arthritis, these smooth surfaces can become inflamed (arthritis literally means "joint swelling"), which leads to pain. Over the course of an average lifetime, these smooth surfaces at the end of the bones simply wear out over time, which is why older people often experience arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is different than age-related arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a degenerative autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. As the disease progresses, individuals with rheumatoid arthritis become increasingly immobile, occasionally to the point of being entirely disabled.
Rarely are early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis the same from person to person. Daily joint pain is the most common early symptom of rheumatoid arthritis, especially in the joints of the wrist and fingers closest to the hand but occasionally other joints as well. Many times the joint pain is felt in the same joints on opposing sides of the body (e.g., both right and left thumbs). Limited motion of affected joints can also be observed. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect not only the joints, but the tissues surrounding the joints such as ligaments, muscles and tendons. It can also affect organs of the body in addition to the joints. When patients with rheumatoid arthritis are experiencing inflammation, the joints will become difficult to move, swollen, red and painful to the touch.
Many early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can mimic symptoms of other disorders, and so can go untreated, such as dry eyes, dry mouth and neck pain. Fatigue, weight loss and a low-grade fever can also be signs of rheumatoid arthritis and, in the absence of joint pain, can be mistaken for other diseases. For instance, lupus and fibromyalgia are two diseases that have symptoms that are similar to rheumatoid arthritis.
The chronic joint inflammation that comes with rheumatoid arthritis can ultimately lead to the erosion of bone tissue and the connective tissues surrounding the joints. This can cause these joints to become deformed.
Progression of Symptoms
The symptoms of RA can be intermittent and depend on the extent to which tissues are swollen. Remission is possible and can be sporadic, ranging in time from weeks to years. During remission, individuals with rheumatoid arthritis can feel completely normal before a relapse occurs. Periods of remission and relapse are common in people with rheumatoid arthritis.