Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the body and principally affects the joints. It can lead to many painful symptoms.
Doctors classify rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as a systemic condition because it can 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 flare-ups and periods of remission. This article will describe how RA feels and where people with this condition can find support.
Flare-ups are temporary increases in the severity of a disease, during which a person’s symptoms are at their peak. A person may have days, weeks, or months with no RA symptoms before a flare-up.
Some people have specific known triggers for flare-ups, which makes them predictable. Common triggers include exercising too intensely or doing too much physical work around the house.
Cold weather, illness or infection, lack of sleep, and stress can also trigger flare-ups.
At other times, RA symptoms are unpredictable. They can come on without warning, even when a person is feeling well overall.
The symptoms of RA flare-ups may include:
- difficulty performing daily activities
- flu-like symptoms
- pain and stiffness in the joints
- pain all over the body, not limited to the joints
- swelling around the joints and tendons
People may feel as though their joints are “on fire” or have the sensation that they are under “attack from within the body.” Other people have described flare-ups as a physical and mental “shut-down.”
Sometimes, people describe the pain as being so intense that they feel as though they want to die, according to research in the journal Rheumatology. Anyone feeling this way should seek emergency medical attention.
RA can take its toll on a person’s mental well-being. People may experience the following symptoms relating to their emotions:
Doctors do not have a standard definition of an RA flare-up, and the symptoms can vary. Over time, people may learn how to recognize the early signs and symptoms of a flare-up, which can allow them to take preventive steps to ease the symptoms.
One of the biggest challenges with RA is the difference between how a person feels and how they appear to others. On the inside, 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. Sometimes, preparing some information about how RA affects people can help others understand the condition.
When a flare-up subsides, this will often restore some or all of an individual’s mobility and energy. They might say that they feel “normal” or as they did before developing RA.
However, each flare-up can have a mental and physical impact on a person. They may feel anxious or scared about the next flare-up. It is vital to remember that the symptoms will go away again after each flare-up.
Advanced RA can take many forms. About 25 percent of 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.
Examples of areas where rheumatoid nodules are common include:
- backs of the heels
The nodules may feel like clusters of several small lumps, or they can be single, larger nodules.
The nodules can be painful and tender during an RA flare-up, but this is not always the case. When RA is in remission, the nodules are usually painless.
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 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
RA can also cause joints, including the fingers and toes, to become deformed if a person does not receive effective treatment. This deformation can have a significant adverse effect on their range of movement and quality of life.
If a person has been experiencing a flare-up for several days with little relief, they should see their doctor. It is essential to manage flare-ups as early on as possible to help prevent long-term damage and reduce painful symptoms.
A doctor may prescribe medications to try to reduce inflammation symptoms. These medications include some types of steroid.
A person should also see a doctor if they seem to be experiencing a higher frequency of flare-ups, the symptoms have become more severe, or both. They may require adjustments to their medication dosage to help reduce their symptoms and enhance their quality of life.
People living with RA do not have to deal with their symptoms alone. There are many helpful resources available.
Ways to get support include:
- Having a positive relationship with a rheumatologist. It is important to be able to communicate openly about symptoms, make appointments when necessary, and answer questions responsively.
- Joining a support group for those with RA. Some people might join a support group that a doctor recommends, while others might prefer to set up a new group.
- Joining Facebook groups or other online support groups. Examples include the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support & Awareness Group. The Arthritis Foundation also has a supportive online community called Inspire.
Living with RA can be challenging, but many people and organizations can help support those with the condition.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be severe, especially during flare-ups. 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 flare-ups, they should talk to their doctor about treatment adjustments.