9 Signs That You May Have Rheumatoid Arthritis

Do you have pain, tenderness, swelling or stiffness in your hands, wrists or feet that has lasted for six weeks or longer? In the morning, are your joints stiff for longer than 30 minutes? Is one or both of your knees tender, warm and swollen? You may have more than arthritis — you may have rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic and often very painful autoimmune disease.

A systemic, or entire body, disease

Sharon Wolfsohn Karp, MD

With rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the body’s immune system, which normally attacks foreign agents like bacteria and viruses, attacks the joints. This creates chronic inflammation that causes the tissue that lines the inside of joints to thicken, causing swelling and sometimes excruciating pain in and around the joints.

Small joints in the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles are most commonly affected, but sometimes rheumatoid arthritis can also affect organs such as the eyes, skin or lungs. If the chronic inflammation caused by RA goes unchecked, it can damage the body’s cartilage, the elastic tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint, as well as the bones themselves.

Over time, people with rheumatoid arthritis can actually lose cartilage. This causes their joints to become loose, unstable, painful, “locked” and deformed. This kind of joint damage cannot be reversed.

Do you have rheumatoid arthritis? 9 ways to know.

1. You have pain, tenderness and swelling in three or more joints for six weeks or longer, and the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

2. You have misshapen finger joints.

3. Your knee joints become tender, warm and swollen.

4. You have high levels of systemic inflammation. Blood tests that measure body-wide inflammation — erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or “sed rate”) and/or C-reactive protein (CRP) — reveal that your inflammation levels are high.

5. X-rays show evidence of bone erosion.

6. You have immune system proteins in your blood, such as rheumatoid factor (RF) or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCP) antibodies.

7. You have difficulty climbing stairs, dressing and performing other activities of daily living, as well as fatigue, loss of appetite and a low-grade fever.

8. You have rheumatoid nodules (lumps of tissue) under the skin on your elbows and fingers.

9. You have one or more conditions related to RA, including:

  • vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation)
  • Felty’s syndrome (enlarged spleen and very low white blood cell count)
  • Sjögren’s syndrome (poor function of the glands that produce tears and saliva)

Who most commonly develops rheumatoid arthritis?

  • About 1.5 million people in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis
  • Nearly three times as many women have the disease as men
  • In women, RA most commonly begins between ages 30 and 60
  • RA tends to improve with pregnancy but it may get worse after the baby is born
  • In men, RA tends to occur later in life
  • Having a family member with RA increases the odds of having RA. However, the majority of people with RA have no family history of the disease.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

The cause of RA is not fully understood, although doctors do know that an abnormal response of a person’s immune system plays a role in the inflammation and joint damage that results from RA. No one knows for sure why the immune system goes awry, but there is scientific evidence that genes, hormones and environmental factors are involved. For example, many experts feel that a person with RA could be genetically predisposed to a triggering event (such as an infection) that starts the chronic inflammation.

Recommended treatments

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, there are a number of treatments (often combined) depending on the severity of their condition, including:

  • Medications (some for pain and others to slow or stop the disease)
  • Rest
  • Exercise
  • Splints and special arthritis aids to take pressure off painful joints
  • Managing stress
  • Avoiding foods that trigger inflammation
  • Eating foods that curb inflammation, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and flax oil
  • Regular medical checkups
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery if joints are severely damaged, possibly including joint replacement surgery

Read our blogs on the subject

We’ve written several informative blogs about arthritis which you can read here.

To learn more

Two excellent resources for finding out more about rheumatoid arthritis, and arthritis in general, are The Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology.

Concerned that you’re at risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis? Come see us.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis or are worried that you’re at risk of developing it and would like guidance about managing this disease, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health rheumatologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your condition and symptoms, and together, decide on the best course of treatment going forward. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By Sharon Wolfsohn Karp, MD, a Rheumatologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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