10 Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Women doctor talking with women patient
    In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the body mistakes its own joint tissues for foreign ones and attacks them. This leads to joint stiffness, swelling, and pain, especially in the feet and hands. RA, and medications to treat it, can also cause complications in parts of the body outside of the joints. Knowing about these complications and their symptoms can help you and your doctor treat them early and effectively. Here are 10 complications of RA to discuss with your doctor.

  • Man holding his elbow
    1. Skin Complications
    Fifty percent of people with RA get hard bumps under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. The nodules tend to develop near bony areas that you put pressure on, such as your knees and elbows. Rheumatoid nodules may go away on their own, or your doctor may prescribe medicine to shrink them. Some RA medications can cause other skin problems including sun sensitivity, rashes, ulcers, and blisters.

  • Blood draw
    2. Blood Complications
    People with RA can have low red blood cell counts or anemia. Anemia in RA is due to a variety of factors, including the disease process itself and medications. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue and headaches. People with RA can also have increased blood platelets (thrombocytosis), which correlates with the amount of inflammation in the body. Fortunately, medications can usually treat or control both anemia and thrombocytosis.

  • Nurse consoling a man
    3. Depression and Anxiety
    Having a chronic, unpredictable disease like RA adds a lot of stress to your life. Stress and dealing with chronic pain make you more likely to suffer from depression. Let your doctor know if you are not enjoying life the way you used to, if you feel hopeless, or if you are having thoughts of hurting yourself. There are many treatments that can help with depression and anxiety when you have RA.

  • Man breathing
    4. Lung Complications
    RA may cause lung conditions that can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing. One of these conditions is pleurisy, which is swelling of the lining around the lungs. RA can also cause pleural effusion, or fluid around the lungs. RA can lead to fibrosis, which causes lung tissue changes and nodules in your lungs. In addition, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) seems to be more common in people with RA. Always check in with your RA specialist or regular doctor if you’re having trouble breathing or any other lung-related symptoms.

  • Women doctor looking at xrays
    5. Osteoporosis
    Osteoporosis is a thinning and weakening of your bones. If you have RA, your risk of osteoporosis increases if you are a woman who has been through menopause, if you are a man over 60, or if RA pain and stiffness limit your activity levels. Your first symptom could be a broken bone. So be proactive and ask your doctor to check for osteoporosis by ordering a bone density test.

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    6. Oral Complications
    Sjogren's syndrome (pronounced "show-grenz” syndrome) is an autoimmune condition that affects 10-15% of people with RA. In Sjogren's syndrome, your body attacks the salivary glands in your mouth, leading to a very dry mouth. Besides giving you bad breath, chronic dry mouth can make it easier for bacteria to survive there and increase your risk for cavities and gum disease. RA medications can also cause oral complications like mouth blisters.

  • Eye exam
    7. Eye Complications
    RA-associated Sjogren's syndrome causes your immune system to attack your tear glands as well as your salivary glands. And RA can also cause scleritis—inflammation of the sclera—the outer white coat of the eye. This inflammation can lead to an ulcer affecting the surface of your eye. Both Sjogren’s syndrome and scleritis can cause your eyes to feel very dry, red and painful. An ophthalmologist can diagnose these conditions and create an effective treatment plan that provides comfort and protects your eyesight.

  • Women rubbing hands
    8. Nerve Complications
    RA can lead to swelling of small blood vessels, a condition called vasculitis. Vasculitis decreases the blood supply to parts of your body and affects the nerves of your hands and feet. The most common sign of vasculitis is a black area of dying tissue under your fingernail called a digital infarct. RA can also lead to numbness, burning and tingling in the fingers, hands and feet.

  • Women doctor checking heart of male patient
    9. Heart Complications
    Heart complications of RA can cause chest pain, difficulty breathing, and sometimes heart attacks. RA can cause the lining around your heart to swell and collect fluid. This condition is called pericarditis. RA also seems to cause intense inflammation within the cardiac arteries, and nodules inside the heart. In fact, RA patients are twice as likely to have a heart attack compared to other adults. Your RA doctor should monitor you for any signs of heart complications.

  • Medicine bottles
    10. Liver and Kidney Complications
    RA is not likely to affect your kidneys or liver, but RA medications can interfere with their function. The doctor treating your RA will monitor your liver and kidney function if you’re on medications that could cause problems. If you have concerns, it is good to bring up the topic with your doctor. Ask if your medications could cause problems and find out if you need tests to monitor liver or kidney health.

  • Women smiling
    Takeaway Message—Know Your Body
    There are several complications of RA that can affect areas of your body besides your joints. Fortunately, many of them are treatable. If you have RA, pay careful attention to your body and your feelings, and talk with your doctor if you start to have pain, anxiety, or other symptoms. There are treatments for RA complications that can greatly help relieve your discomfort.

10 Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis
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Last Review Date: 2018 Mar 4
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