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Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) doesn’t only affect the joints. RA is an autoimmune disease that can also affect many body organs and cause symptoms that range from mild to severe. Fortunately, treatment can prevent or delay many of the complications of RA.
RA does not only cause joint pain and stiffness. It can also cause long-term problems with bone and joint health.
Progressive inflammation from RA can destroy the cartilage and bone around affected joints. In severe cases, when there is severe loss of cartilage, the bones become deformed and can fuse, causing the joint to become immobilized.
Joint damage is often permanent and irreversible. However, total joint replacement surgery may be an option for some joints.
Early, aggressive treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) may prevent or delay joint damage
Osteoporosis is a loss of bone density. It makes fractures more likely. According to the Mayo Clinic, RA sufferers are at increased risk of osteoporosis for several reasons including:
Talk to your doctor about steps you can take to prevent bone loss. Your doctor may recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements.
Both RA and its treatment can affect your quality of life in a number of ways.
Pain from RA may wake patients several times during the night, preventing restorative sleep. In addition, several RA drugs can cause insomnia.
Joint damage and pain can keep you from performing normal everyday tasks. It may become difficult to do even simple things like getting dressed or using a computer mouse.
RA symptoms can also affect your ability to work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people with RA are substantially more likely to:
According to the CDC, RA is the 19th leading cause of years lost to disability in the United States.
The stress of RA and the lifestyle changes it causes can lead to:
In addition to joint problems, RA also increases the risk of whole-body illness. People with RA are at particularly high risk of cardiovascular disease and infections.
Anemia is a low level of red blood cells in the body. It causes:
Widespread inflammation caused by RA can affect production of red blood cells. According to an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, this makes anemia very common among RA patients.
Rheumatoid lung is a group of lung conditions commonly found in RA patients. These conditions include:
It’s not known why RA leads to these problems. Symptoms of rheumatoid lung include:
RA sometimes causes inflammation in and around the heart. It can cause both pericarditis and myocarditis. Pericarditis is inflammation of the membrane lining the heart. Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle itself.
Inflammation around the heart can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF is a serious condition where the heart cannot adequately pump blood to the rest of the body.
People with RA also have an increased risk of:
Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease commonly linked to RA. The disease attacks moisture-producing cells, like the salivary and tear glands.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Sjögren's syndrome is most prevalent in women. It’s characterized by:
Sjögren's can also cause digestive and neurological problems.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Published on: Sep 08, 2014
Medically reviewed on: Sep 14, 2016: Nancy Carteron, MD, FACR
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