Rheumatoid arthritis can cause stiffness, tenderness, and joint pain. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may get worse over time, but treatments can help a person to manage the condition.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) most commonly affects the joints in a person’s hands, wrists, and knees. It can cause intense pain, swelling, and stiffness.

However, RA may affect the whole body. Without effective treatment, it can be progressive, meaning that it may get worse over time.

A person with RA will typically experience flares and periods of remission. This article will describe how RA feels and where people with this condition can find support.

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RA flares can be unpredictable and temporarily increase the severity of the condition. A person may have days, weeks, or months with no RA symptoms between these events.

However, some people have specific known triggers for flares and may be more aware of when they may occur. Common triggers include exercising too intensely or doing too much physical work.

Illness or infection, lack of sleep, and stress can also trigger flares.

Learn all there is to know about RA in our dedicated hub.

Local physical symptoms

The symptoms of RA flares include:

  • Joint stiffness: This can affect a person’s ability to carry out everyday physical tasks, meaning they may require assistance.
  • Joint swelling: RA is an inflammatory disease. This inflammation can lead to visible swelling of affected joints.
  • Joint tenderness: Sites of RA inflammation may be tender to the touch.
  • Pain: Inflammation from RA can push on joints and soft tissue, causing pain. In severe cases, the condition can lead to joint damage.
  • Nodules: People will RA may develop nodules on their skin. These are areas of inflammation that can be painful to the touch.
  • Difficulty breathing: RA can cause inflammation throughout the body, including the lungs and lung lining. Inflammation here can cause shortness of breath and persistent coughs.
  • Itchy skin: People with RA may experience itching due to RA symptoms, medications, or co-occurring conditions.
  • Vision issues: RA can cause inflammation in the eyes, leading to dryness, discomfort, and other vision issues.
  • Other inflammation: Away from the joints, RA inflammation can affect a person’s lungs, eyes, heart, and nervous system.

The symptoms of flares can vary between people. As a result, there is no definitive definition of how they feel.

Learn more about the symptoms of RA here.

Whole-body symptoms

People living with RA may experience whole-body symptoms. These include:

RA can also take its toll on a person’s mental well-being. The condition is unpredictable, can result in severe pain, and may impede a person’s ability to go about their life as before

This can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and social exclusion. Estimates say 14–62% of people living with RA experience symptoms of depression, according to a 2019 review.

In addition, a person’s RA may not always be visible or understood by others. A person may be experiencing severe pain and fatigue that is hard for others to recognize and understand. This lack of visible symptoms can lead to frustration among family, friends, and coworkers.

Common RA locations

RA typically affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. However, the condition can also affect the skin, heart, lungs, and eyes.

Learn more about the effects of rheumatoid arthritis here.

Remission is when a person experiences few to no RA symptoms. There are several clinical criteria that define remission, and the discussion of these is ongoing.

A common measure is a disease activity score (DAS28) of below 2.6.

For people living with RA, remission may mean reaching a point closer to “normal.” Remission typically includes an absence or low level of symptoms such as pain, swelling, and joint stiffness.

How long a period of remission lasts and how symptoms present during this time will vary between people. A 2017 review found that sustained remission rates could vary from 5–45%.

Advanced RA can take many forms.

About 25 in 100 people with RA will experience rheumatoid nodules.

These nodules may feel like solid lumps underneath the skin. They usually form at the base of joints and in particular parts of the body that can rub against hard surfaces, such as the elbows and heels.

Areas where rheumatoid nodules are common include:

  • backs of the heels
  • elbows
  • fingers
  • knees
  • knuckles

The nodules may feel like clusters of several small lumps, or they can be single, larger nodules.

RA progresses differently in everyone. Some people have milder forms of the disease, while others may be at risk of severe complications, such as:

  • cancer, particularly lymphoma
  • heart disease
  • respiratory conditions, such as interstitial lung disease (ILD)

Advanced RA can also lead to arthritis mutilans. This can cause severe deformity of the hands and feet.

Learn more about arthritis mutilans here.

If a person has been experiencing repeated flares with little relief, they should see their doctor. It is essential to manage flares as early as possible.

Patients may require changes to their medication and treatment programs if flares persist. Making these changes may help prevent long-term damage and reduce painful symptoms.

A person should also see a doctor if they seem to be experiencing a higher frequency of flares, if the symptoms have become more severe, or both.

Discover 12 early signs of RA and when to seek help here.

RA is a chronic, lifelong condition. People with RA should work with their doctor to establish a treatment routine that helps them maintain disease remission.

If a person experiences more frequent or worsening flares, they should talk with their doctor about treatment adjustments.

Learn more about the outlook for RA here.

A person with RA may feel intense pain in their joints during flares. This can feel like sustained pressure, a burning sensation, or a sharp pain.

However, people with RA may also experience periods of remission when they feel few to no symptoms.

In addition to causing joint pain, RA can affect the whole body. A person living with the condition may experience fatigue, depression, anxiety, and lose weight unintentionally.

RA is a lifelong condition. As a result, the key treatment outcome for RA is managing the condition.