Early symptoms of relapsing polychondritis include sudden pain in cartilage, ear swelling, joint inflammation, and eye problems. Although polychondritis is not currently curable, treatment helps reduce symptoms.

Relapsing polychondritis is a rare inflammatory disorder that affects the cartilage and connective tissue in the body. Researchers are not clear on the cause. But it may occur due to the immune system mistakenly attacking the cartilage.

Cartilage covers different parts of the body, such as the joints. It also gives support and shape to other body parts, such as the nose. Relapsing polychondritis can affect the cartilage in any part of the body.

The inflammation can come and go, and the ear, nose, and joints are commonly affected.

The article below covers relapsing polychondritis early symptoms, other symptoms, treatments, and outcomes.

A person with inflammation of the outer ear, an early symptom of relapsing polychondritis.Share on Pinterest
Design by Medical News Today; photography by iweevy/Shutterstock

In some cases, early symptoms of relapsing polychondritis are subtle. Symptoms may not be recognized as polychondritis until they become more severe.

The body has cartilage throughout. So many different symptoms can develop. The early signs of polychondritis may vary depending on the part of the body affected. The severity may also vary from person to person.

We explore the most common early symptoms in more detail below.

Learn more about cartilage damage.

Sudden pain

One common early symptom includes sudden pain, which can occur in any area of cartilage. For example, sudden pain and tenderness can develop in the ears, ribs, or sternum. Pain may vary in severity from moderate to severe.

Swelling in ears

About 90% of people with relapsing polychondritis experience symptoms involving their ears. Usually, the condition affects the outer ear, which is largely composed of cartilage. The outer ear may develop:

Typically, the earlobes do not become inflamed.

If inflammation travels to the middle ear, it can cause blockage of the Eustachian tube. Inner ear inflammation may lead to ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and hearing loss.

Learn more about the causes of ear redness.

Joint inflammation

The second most common symptom of relapsing polychondritis involves joint problems. Inflammation of both small and large joints can develop. Symptoms of joint inflammation include swelling and pain.

Inflammation may develop in any joint. But often, the affected joints include the knees, wrist, and finger joints.

Eye problems

About 20–60% of people with relapsing polychondritis develop eye problems. The condition may affect any part of the eye and cause pain and redness in one or both eyes.

Learn more about causes of red eyes.

Ongoing inflammation can lead to complications, such as a corneal ulcer that can affect vision.

Nose inflammation

The nose is another area of the body that contains cartilage.

Inflammation and swelling of the nose can develop in people with polychondritis. The swelling can cause the nose to feel blocked. Pain and redness may also occur.

Learn more about the causes of nose redness.

Skin lesions

Skin lesions can also occur. About 36% of people with polychondritis develop some form of skin involvement.

Some types of skin lesions, such as nodules or skin ulcers, may develop early on.

Relapsing polychondritis is progressive. This means symptoms may become more severe over time. But polychondritis can affect people differently.

Other possible symptoms of polychondritis include the following:

As symptoms continue, the parts of the body first affected may experience further symptom progression as cartilage becomes destroyed from ongoing inflammation.

For instance, the bridge of the nose may collapse if enough cartilage is destroyed through inflammation, resulting in saddle nose deformity.

Additional symptoms can develop if the airways, heart, or nervous system become involved. These include:

The symptoms of polychondritis are diverse and can occur in many different conditions. Because the disease rarely occurs, the medical community may not initially recognize it. This can lead to a delayed diagnosis.

Healthcare professionals diagnose polychondritis based on symptoms. It is helpful to speak with a healthcare professional if unexplained symptoms occur, such as sudden pain and swelling in an area of cartilage like the ear.

Also, speak with a healthcare professional if unexplained rib or joint pain develops.

The treatment for polychondritis aims to decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms.

Ongoing and long-term inflammation can irreversibly damage the cartilage. Starting treatment as soon as possible may help decrease this risk.

Treatment often includes medication. A few different classifications of medications may help, including:

  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are steroids, such as prednisone, that decrease inflammation and swelling.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): NSAIDS, such as dapsone, also reduce inflammation.
  • Immunosuppressants: These medications suppress the immune system and may help decrease flare-ups of the condition.

The outlook for people with relapsing polychondritis varies depending on which body part is affected.

Some people may develop long-term issues related to ongoing inflammation, such as hearing loss or vision issues. Damage to the joints can also cause ongoing pain.

According to research, the overall 5-year survival rate was about 74%, per a 1986 study. But some later studies indicate the survival rate is higher. For instance, a 2016 study involving 256 people found a 5-year survival rate of 83.6–92.9%.

People with respiratory tract involvement often have a less favorable outcome due to heart and lung complications.
Individuals with polychondritis may have improved outcomes in recent years due to a better understanding of the condition.

Relapsing polychondritis is a rare condition that leads to inflammation and pain in the body’s cartilage. Any area can be affected.

Early symptoms include sudden pain that typically occurs in the outer ear, joint inflammation, and pain and redness of the nose. Less commonly, the disease may also affect the kidneys, airways, and heart.

Treatment may help reduce symptoms and can include steroids and other medication to suppress the immune system.