Rheumatoid Arthritis: Know the Signs and Symptoms

Everyday Health—September 17, 2014

Getting treatment early for rheumatoid arthritis can change the course of the disease. Learn the signs and symptoms and when to talk to your doctor.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may sound like a condition that you don’t need to worry about until your golden years, when you’re comfortably settled into a senior home. But this condition often strikes women between the ages of 30 and 50 — and can quickly become debilitating.

However, early and aggressive treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with the latest generation of drugs can potentially delay or even prevent the joint destruction, disability, and organ damage often associated with the disease — but only if you know what to look for.

Being aware of the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis and discussing them with your doctor is the first step to diagnosing the disease and starting treatment.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the immune system and causes joint pain and swelling. Although there's no cure for the disease, new disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), including biologics, can target the inflammation associated with the disease and can significantly slow its progression.

Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can vary from person to person, but three hallmarks of the disease distinguish it from other types of arthritis:

1. Swollen joints. Tenderness, swelling, and puffiness of the small joints in the hand, especially at the knuckles where the fingers meet the palm, are early signs of RA. "Rheumatoid arthritis tends to involve the knuckles," says Theodore Fields, MD, director of the Rheumatology Faculty Practice Plan at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "Tenderness and puffiness in those joints is an important clue."

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