When most people think of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), what likely comes to mind is joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. While these are the hallmark symptoms, RA is a complex condition that can manifest in a variety of ways. Especially in Canada, where approximately 300,000 people are living with RA, it's crucial to recognize not just the common symptoms but also the unusual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, meaning it can affect the entire body, not just the joints. Knowing of the unusual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment plans, ultimately improving the quality of life for those affected.
In this article, we'll delve into some of these lesser-known, but equally impactful, symptoms that you or someone you know may experience with rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis, commonly referred to as RA, is often misunderstood as a condition limited to aching joints and morning stiffness. While these are some of its most prevalent symptoms, RA is far more complex.
It's a chronic autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's tissues, primarily affecting the joints. It's crucial to understand that RA is a systemic disease, which means it has the potential to impact the entire body. Unlike osteoarthritis, which is primarily a wear-and-tear condition affecting the joints, RA can manifest in a host of different ways that go far beyond your knees, wrists, or fingers.
From your eyes and skin to your heart and lungs, RA can indeed be a full-body experience. Understanding RA as a systemic disease helps to shed light on its more unusual symptoms and why they occur.
While joint pain and swelling are the calling cards of rheumatoid arthritis, this autoimmune disease can manifest in numerous other ways. Here are 10 unusual symptoms you should be aware of:
Experiencing dry, itchy eyes and mouth could be more than just an annoyance; it may be connected to your rheumatoid arthritis. Sjögren's syndrome, a condition where the immune system targets the body's own cells responsible for generating saliva and tears, is frequently linked with RA. This syndrome often appears alongside autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
For those with rheumatoid arthritis, the presence of subcutaneous nodules is not uncommon; in fact, they appear in an estimated 20-25% of RA patients. These nodules, often tender to the touch, are generally linked with a positive rheumatoid factor (RF). Common locations for these nodules include the outer elbow area, the forearm's extensor surface, and both the back and palm sides of the hands. These are firm lumps that can form under the skin near affected joints or even in other parts of the body. They're a result of inflammatory cells accumulating in a localized area.
While joint problems are the most recognized symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, respiratory complications actually rank as the most prevalent non-joint-related issues, as noted by the Arthritis Foundation.
One striking statistic comes from a European Respiratory Review study, which found that the pleura—the lung's lining—may be affected in a staggering 70% of people with RA. However, only a small fraction of those individuals, about 3-5%, actually show symptoms.
The development of Rheumatoid Arthritis-Associated Interstitial Lung Disease can lead to symptoms like breathlessness and a persistent dry cough, however, many people with RA-related lung damage experience no symptoms at all.
The risk of cardiovascular issues among people with rheumatoid arthritis is significantly higher compared to those without RA—up to 70% higher, in fact. The common denominator here is inflammation. According to experts in the field of rheumatology, inflammation plays a central role in both joint damage and heart disease, making it an unsurprising link between RA and cardiovascular events.
It's worth noting that inflammation isn't just confined to the joints in RA. It also has far-reaching effects on the cardiovascular system. Inflammatory compounds known as cytokines are implicated in both the deterioration of joints and damage to blood vessels. The presence of inflammation can lead to arterial plaque accumulation, restricting blood flow over time, and becoming a primary cause for heart attacks and strokes.
The chronic inflammation characteristic of RA doesn't just affect the joints; it also has implications for cognitive function. Many RA patients report cognitive difficulties like struggling with concentration, memory lapses, and clouded thinking. These symptoms collectively fall under the term "brain fog," which manifests differently from person to person but often involves issues like poor memory, lack of focus, and difficulties in problem-solving or decision-making.
Skin issues are more common in RA patients than you might think. One such manifestation is rheumatoid vasculitis, a condition affecting the smaller blood vessels. This can result in red or purplish rashes, primarily on the legs, and in severe cases, can lead to sores or ulcers.
Another rare but concerning skin condition is neutrophilic dermatosis, characterized by patches of inflamed skin. In both instances, prompt medical attention is crucial, often requiring biopsies to guide treatment.
Another aspect to consider is medication-induced skin problems, including sun sensitivity and an increased risk for certain types of skin cancer. These issues often necessitate protective measures like wearing long sleeves or using sunscreen, as well as regular skin exams for those on certain medications.
Experiencing a low-grade fever might be more than just a random symptom; it can be indicative of the persistent inflammation that is a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. These fevers typically range from 97°F to 100°F and can be a sign that the immune system is mistakenly targeting healthy cells instead of foreign invaders. This autoimmune dysfunction doesn't just focus on the joints but can extend its inflammatory reach to other organs like the eyes, lungs, skin, and heart.
Bruising more frequently than usual could be more than just a random occurrence; it might be linked to your rheumatoid arthritis. RA can lead to a decrease in blood platelets. This is significant because platelets play a vital role in helping your blood clot. When you have RA, your body might either consume platelets too quickly or not produce enough, making you prone to bruises.
For some individuals, debilitating fatigue ranks as one of the most troubling aspects of the disease.
This goes beyond the localized tiredness one might feel in inflamed joints, this extends to a pervasive sense of exhaustion that makes even the simplest of tasks feel overwhelming. Autoimmune inflammation involves the body attacking itself, and that is extremely taxing for the body, causing extreme fatigue.
Additionally, RA can impact the small nerves in your hands and feet, leading to sensations akin to pins and needles. This can also cause your fingers or toes to change color in response to temperature changes, appearing white, red, or blue.
If you're experiencing tingling or numbness in your hands, it may not be directly due to rheumatoid arthritis but rather a related complication. One such issue that often arises alongside RA is carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition caused by the compression of the median nerve running from your wrist to your fingers.
As we've explored some unusual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, it's clear this condition is far more than just a joint issue; it can manifest in various ways that profoundly impact your quality of life. From chronic fatigue and brain fog to cardiovascular complications and even skin conditions, the symptoms can be both diverse and debilitating.
If you find that RA is significantly affecting your ability to work or perform daily tasks, you might be eligible for support. In Canada, the Disability Tax Credit is available to help offset some of the financial burdens associated with long-term disabilities like RA. Don't hesitate to explore this option as a way to manage the financial and emotional stress often accompanying a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis.
Learn More: What Is The Disability Tax Credit?