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Early Signs And Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are a few different types of arthritis, but the rheumatoid variety is when a person’s immune system attacks and subsequently inflames their joints. It is very painful and can ultimately lead to physical disability. Though there is no cure, early detection and management is crucial to prevent lasting joint damage. So what are the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis? We’ll describe them here so you know when it’s time to see the doctor.

What happens with rheumatoid arthritis
The underlying cause of RA is a malfunctioning immune system. A healthy immune system fights infection, but in people with rheumatoid arthritis, this protective system mistakenly attacks the cells in the lining of their joints. Symptoms are most commonly seen in the hands, wrists, and feet, and cause these joints to become swollen, stiff, and quite painful. RA may have periods of inactivity followed by agonizing flare-ups. Treatment can help to reduce flare-ups and their associated damage, but not eliminate the disease all together.

Sign 1: Fatigue
Granted, chronic fatigue is a very vague symptom that can be caused by a whole host of conditions. However, it is often the first sign of rheumatoid arthritis. If you later experience any of the other symptoms on this list, it can be helpful to report to your doctor that you have also felt fatigued recently. Depression is a similar response that can also point to RA. This is thought to be due to the body’s ongoing efforts to combat inflammation in the joints.

Sign 2: Low grade fever
Fever is another of the body’s defense mechanisms against invading germs, but remember that the immune system malfunctions when it comes to RA. Fever can accompany swelling in the joints, and may in fact be noticeable before you experience considerable pain. You may also have a general feeling of unwellness – if it lasts more than a week and has no other recognizable cause, it’s important to get checked out.

Sign 3: Weight loss
Unexplained weight loss can also be caused by many different conditions, but in the case of RA, weight loss is often a side effect of feeling feverish and fatigued. People in this condition often don’t eat enough. So it is useful to notice first if your appetite has been diminished. If you discover that you’re losing weight, that’s a sign that something has been wrong for awhile.

Sign 4: Stiffness
If you are experiencing persistent stiffness, tenderness, and pain in your joints, especially if it centers in the hands, wrists, or feet, this may be an early sign of rheumatoid arthritis. The stiffness can occur in just one or two joints at a time and come on slowly, but often lasts for days at a time. It’s also common for RA sufferers who have been still for long periods, such as while sleeping, to experience all over body stiffness when they start to move again.

Sign 5: Joint tenderness
Rheumatoid arthritis can be quite painful, but in its early stages you are likely to feel more tenderness or soreness than outright pain. Joint tenderness in your hands and feet is a common early indicator of RA. It will be most noticeable during movement, or when pressure is applied. When this tenderness occurs in the feet, the joints located at the base of the toes are often the first affected. This can cause people to gradually shift weight onto their heels or to lift up their toes when they walk.

Sign 6: Joint pain
With RA, joint tenderness will eventually bloom into joint pain in the fingers, wrists, and feet. Because these joints are inflamed, the joint lining becomes thicker and produces extra fluid. These factors put excess pressure on the capsule surrounding the joint, which in turn irritates the associated nerves, sending major pain signals to the brain.

Sign 7: Joint swelling
Not surprisingly, inflammation, thickened linings, and excess fluid tend to cause noticeable swelling in affected joints. In early stages, the swelling is more subtle, but untreated RA will ultimately cause significantly swollen joints. This symptom goes hand-in-hand with the stiffness described earlier.

Sign 8: Joint redness
Inflammation of the joints also tends to give them a red or rashy appearance. This discoloration in the skin around the affected joints happens because inflamed tissues cause the surrounding blood vessels to widen and direct more blood flow to the area.

Sign 9: Joint warmth
Even before you are aware of joint swelling or redness, you may feel warmth in the affected areas. This signals that inflammation is beginning and can be an early sign of RA. You may experience this symptom at the same time as other non-specific complaints such as fatigue and low grade fever.

Sign 10: Numbness and tingling
Adding to the list of discomforts that can be caused by inflammation, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet occur when the associated swelling causes nerve compression. Those nerves are then unable to fire correctly, resulting in either a total loss of sensation or a tingling feeling.

Sign 11: Decreased range of motion
Before outright stiffness in the joints, you may notice that you are gradually losing range of motion. If it has become harder to bend your fingers, wrists, or toes to the extent that you are used to, this may be an early sign of rheumatoid arthritis. Lack of treatment for RA will allow this process to continue until it is hard to bend these joints at all.

Sign 12: Symmetrical suffering
For some unknown reason, people with RA often have symptoms that occur in the same joints on both sides of their body. That might mean both pinky fingers, both wrists, or both big toes. However, this is not the case for everyone, so don’t discount RA if your symptoms occur less symmetrically.

If you are experiencing any combination of the symptoms above, please get checked out by your doctor. Complications related to RA can include permanent joint deformity and damage to surrounding cartilage and bones. Left untreated, RA can also cause lumps that develop on or near affected joints called rheumatoid nodules. Worse still, rheumatoid arthritis is known to increase your risk of eventual heart attack or stroke. Don’t suffer in silence! There may not be a cure, but regular care can make you more comfortable and reduce your risk of bigger problems down the road.