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Rheumatoid Arthritis (cont.)

How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects the Entire Body

  • Musculoskeletal structures: Damage to muscles surrounding joints may cause atrophy (shrinking) that results in weakening. This is most common in the hands. Atrophy also may result from not using a muscle, such as from pain or swelling. Damage to bones and tendons can cause deformities, especially of the hands and feet. Osteoporosis and carpal tunnel syndrome are other common complications of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Skin: Many people with rheumatoid arthritis develop small, firm nodules on or near the joint that are visible under the skin. These rheumatoid nodules are most noticeable under the skin on the bony areas that stick out when a joint is flexed. Dark purplish areas on the skin (purpura) are caused by bleeding into the skin from blood vessels damaged by rheumatoid arthritis. Purpura is particularly common in those patients who have taken cortisone medication. This damage to the blood vessels is called vasculitis, and these vasculitic lesions also may cause skin ulcers.
  • Heart: A collection of fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion) from inflammation is not uncommon in rheumatoid arthritis. This usually causes only mild symptoms, if any, but it can be very severe and lead to poor heart function. Rheumatoid arthritis-related inflammation can affect the heart muscle, the heart valves, or the blood vessels of the heart (coronary arteries). Heart attacks are more frequent in patients with rheumatoid arthritis than those without it, therefore, monitoring cholesterol and cardiovascular health is important.
  • Lungs: Rheumatoid arthritis' effects on the lungs may take several forms. Fluid may collect around one or both lungs and is referred to as a pleural effusion. Inflammation of the lining tissues of the lungs is known as pleuritis. Less frequently, lung tissues may become stiff or scarred, referred to as pulmonary fibrosis. Any of these effects can have a negative effect on breathing. Lung infections are more common with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Digestive tract: The digestive tract is usually not affected directly by rheumatoid arthritis. Dry mouth, related to Sjögren's syndrome, is the most common symptom of gastrointestinal involvement. Digestive complications are much more likely to be caused by medications used to treat the condition, such as gastritis (stomach inflammation) or stomach ulcer caused by NSAID therapy. Any part of the digestive tract may become inflamed if the patient develops vasculitis, but this is uncommon.
  • Kidneys: The kidneys are not usually affected directly by rheumatoid arthritis. Kidney problems in rheumatoid arthritis are much more likely to be caused by medications used to treat the condition. Nevertheless, severe, long-standing disease can uncommonly lead to a form of protein deposition and damage to the kidney, referred to as amyloidosis.
  • Blood vessels: Inflammation of the blood vessels can cause problems in any organ but is most common in the skin, where it appears as purple patches (purpura) or skin ulcers.
  • Blood: Anemia or "low blood" is a common complication of rheumatoid arthritis. Anemia means that there is an abnormally low number of red blood cells and that these cells are low in hemoglobin, the substance that carries oxygen through the body. (Anemia has many different causes and is by no means unique to rheumatoid arthritis.) A low white blood cell count (leukopenia) can occur from Felty's syndrome, a complication of rheumatoid arthritis that is also characterized by enlargement of the spleen.
  • Nervous system: The deformity and damage to joints in rheumatoid arthritis often lead to entrapment of nerves. Carpal tunnel syndrome is one example of this. Entrapment can damage nerves and may lead to serious consequences.
  • Eyes: The eyes commonly become dry and/or inflamed in rheumatoid arthritis. This is a result of inflammation of the tear glands and is called Sjögren's syndrome. The severity of this condition depends on which parts of the eye are affected. There are many other eye complications of rheumatoid arthritis, including inflammation of the whites of the eyes (scleritis) that often require the attention of an ophthalmologist.

Like many autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis typically waxes and wanes. Most people with rheumatoid arthritis experience periods when their symptoms worsen (known as flares or active disease) separated by periods in which the symptoms improve. With successful treatment, symptoms may even go away completely (remission, or inactive disease).

About 1.3 million people in the United States are believed to have rheumatoid arthritis.

  • About 75% of these are women. Women are two to three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis affects all ages, races, and social and ethnic groups.
  • It is most likely to strike people 35-50 years of age, but it can occur in children, teenagers, and elderly people. Rheumatoid arthritis that begins in people under 16 years of age is similar but not identical to the disease in adults and is referred to as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (formerly juvenile rheumatoid arthritis).
  • Worldwide, about 1% of people are believed to have rheumatoid arthritis, but the rate varies among different groups of people. For example, rheumatoid arthritis affects about 5%-6% of some Native-American groups, while the rate is very low in some Caribbean people of African descent.
  • The rate is about 2%-3% in people who have a close relative with rheumatoid arthritis, such as a parent, brother or sister, or child.

Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, the disease can be controlled in most people. Early, aggressive therapy, soon after the initial diagnosis, that is optimally targeted to stop or slow down inflammation in the joints can prevent or reduce symptoms, prevent or reduce joint destruction and deformity, and prevent or lessen disability and other complications.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/11/2015

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