The Early Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Arthritis is an incredibly common condition – 54 million Americans are living with this painful disease and its effects¹. But just because arthritis is common doesn’t mean it isn’t debilitating. And if you happen to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, the effect on your body can be increasingly difficult and disheartening.
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, affects more than 1.3 million people in the U.S.², and it can occur in either specific joints or throughout the entire body. Fortunately, catching the signs of RA early on can help you find treatment and soothe your symptoms.
While the best-known symptom of rheumatoid arthritis might be joint pain, this condition is so much more than everyday pain. It’s a systemic autoimmune disease that typically occurs in joints on both sides of the body. And over time, as different areas of the body become inflamed, joint damage can happen.
In order to catch rheumatoid arthritis early, it’s important to be aware of any changes in your body – but it’s also crucial that you know the earliest signs and symptoms of this condition. Be on the lookout for the following signs of RA.
As you get older, achiness and stiffness in the morning right after waking up can be increasingly common. It can feel difficult to get yourself moving and to “wake up” your joints. But if you’re feeling stiff in your fingers, knees, or other joint for more than just a few minutes every morning, you could be living with RA.
Morning stiffness is one of the first signs of arthritis of any kind. If your stiffness doesn’t go away but lingers throughout the morning, it’s likely a sign of a more serious kind of arthritis – a kind that grows worse without treatment³.
This stiffness can also occur throughout the day, happening after any period of time when you haven’t been moving. If you feel stiff after prolonged sitting or after taking a nap, you may have rheumatoid arthritis.
Joint Pain and Stiffness
Because RA is a type of arthritis, joint pain is one of the key early symptoms to watch for. If you notice your joints are feeling sore, painful, or tender to the touch anywhere on your body, you should be concerned.
Your joints may also feel stiff. Joint stiffness can occur with or separately from joint paint, but it often begins in the hands and comes on slowly.
It’s important to note that this is a symptom with a unique trait. Unlike some other forms of arthritis, joint pain that’s the product of rheumatoid arthritis typically appears on both sides of the body⁴. For example, if you have joint pain in one knee, it’s likely to occur in the opposite knee too.
Another subtle sign of rheumatoid arthritis can be fatigue. While joint pain and stiffness might be easy to spot, fatigue can be more difficult to differentiate – especially if you lead a busy life.
Fatigue will leave you feeling tired even after a solid night of eight hours of sleep. You may struggle to get out of bed in the morning and have difficulty staying awake throughout the day. Many people with fatigue want to take naps; others will feel exhausted no matter how much they’re resting or sleeping.
It’s also important to know that fatigue can come and go, but that it’s usually one of the very first signs of RA. Fatigue can appear before any other symptoms⁵, leaving you exhausted with no other noticeable indicators of rheumatoid arthritis.
RA can cause minor swelling in your joints when it’s in its earliest stages. Your joints may appear a bit larger than normal, and they may feel warm to the touch.
Any joint can experience this swelling, but remember that it will likely happen in both sides of the body simultaneously – for example, both hands will swell or both knees will swell. Swelling can happen when you experience a flare up⁶, or a surge in RA symptoms and inflammation. This can happen in the same joints repeatedly, or it can occur in different joints each time.
Decreased Range of Motion
As rheumatoid arthritis produces inflammation in different joints throughout your body, it can cause all of the symptoms mentioned above, seriously affecting your daily pain levels and your ability to function. And decreased motion, or the added difficulty of moving your joints, is one of the last early signs of RA.
RA can cause a decrease in your range of motion as it attacks your joints and potentially even makes them deformed. This can leave you struggling to fully bend or straighten some of your joints, and it can cause pain with movement or certain types of exercise.
Other Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
In addition to the above common signs of RA that can manifest when the condition first begins, there are other, less common changes rheumatoid arthritis can cause. While these symptoms may not be traditional signs of RA, they can signal the progression of the disease and any serious changes in your health, like complications caused either by rheumatoid arthritis or your treatment plan.
Make sure to talk with your doctor about the possibility of rheumatoid arthritis if you notice any of the following:
- Fever: Because RA causes active inflammation in the body, a light fever can be one of the condition’s symptoms. If you notice your temperature climbs above 100.4 degrees, you might have an infection caused by RA7.
- Numbness or Tingling: Along with joint pain, you may experience numbness or tingling in your joints. This can occur if joint swelling irritates or puts pressure on your nerves.
- Changes in Your Eyes or Vision: Those with rheumatoid arthritis can experience eye redness when blood vessels become inflamed. Another rare complication that can appear is the loss of your ability to see red or green color; this often happens if you’re taking specific RA medications.
- Insomnia: Pain and swelling in your joints can keep you up at night due to discomfort. If inflammation or pain is keeping you awake at night, it could be a sign that you need to manage your symptoms better.
- A Rash: Although rare, RA can cause rashes. If you notice a rash after you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it could be a serious complication or the result of any medication you’re taking.
In addition to these less common symptoms, different treatment options and plans for rheumatoid arthritis can cause side effects and varying symptoms of their own. If your medications are causing problems like nausea or vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, or dizziness and lightheadedness, these changes could be a sign that medications aren’t working for you. It’s important to pay close attention to any health changes like these so you can speak with a doctor about finding a better solution and an RA treatment that works.