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Although rheumatoid arthritis can have many different symptoms, joints are always affected. Rheumatoid arthritis almost always affects the joints of the hands (such as the knuckle joints), wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and/or feet. The larger joints, such as the shoulders, hips, and jaw, may be affected. The vertebrae of the neck are sometimes involved in people who have had the disease for many years. Usually at least two or three different joints are involved on both sides of the body, often in a symmetrical (mirror image) pattern. The usual joint symptoms include the following:
- Stiffness: The joint does not move as well as it once did. Its range of motion (the extent to which the appendage of the joint, such as the arm, leg, or finger, can move in different directions) may be reduced. Typically, stiffness is most noticeable in the morning and improves later in the day.
- Inflammation: Red, tender, and warm joints are the hallmarks of inflammation. Many joints are typically inflamed (polyarthritis).
- Swelling: The area around the affected joint is swollen and puffy.
- Nodules: These are hard bumps that appear on or near the joint. They often are found near the elbows. They are most noticeable on the part of the joint that juts out when the joint is flexed.
- Pain: Pain in rheumatoid arthritis has several sources. Pain can come from inflammation or swelling of the joint and surrounding tissues or from working the joint too hard. The intensity of the pain varies among individuals.
These symptoms may keep someone from being able to carry out normal activities. General symptoms include the following:
- Malaise (a "blah" feeling)
- Loss of appetite or lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Myalgias (muscle aches)
- Weakness or loss of energy
The symptoms usually come on very gradually, although in some people they come on very suddenly. Sometimes, the general symptoms come before the joint symptoms, and an individual may think he or she has the flu or a similar illness.
The following conditions suggest that rheumatoid arthritis is quiet, referred to as "in remission":
- Morning stiffness lasting less than 15 minutes
- No fatigue
- No joint pain
- No joint tenderness or pain with motion
- No soft-tissue swelling
For more information, please read our full medical article on rheumatoid arthritis.