In the short term, untreated rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can lead to worsening symptoms. Over time, it could cause serious joint deformities, disability, and other health complications.

RA is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and damage to the joints. In the earliest stages, symptoms may include tenderness and pain in the joints.

As the condition progresses, symptoms may worsen and affect more joints. Treatment is vital to slow joint deterioration and improve outcomes.

This article examines the long- and short-term risks of untreated RA, existing treatments, and when to speak with a doctor about RA symptoms.

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Untreated RA may lead to flare-ups in the short term. Flare-ups involve a sudden increase in RA severity, which can worsen symptoms.

RA symptoms include joint swelling, tenderness, and pain. As a result, flare-ups can contribute to the following complications:

  • reduced mobility
  • reduced ability for self-care
  • impediments to socializing or working

Treatment aims to relieve symptoms, improve function, and prevent joint damage and inflammation. Not treating RA may lead to more severe flare-ups as the condition progresses.

In the long term, people with untreated RA may experience worsening disability and joint deformity due to increased joint damage and inflammation.

As symptoms worsen over time, people with RA may develop comorbidities, including depressive disorders. These may affect up to 41.5% of people with RA.

RA may also lead to an increased risk of:

Some RA treatments, such as corticosteroids, may also increase the risk of complications, including osteoporosis and osteopenia. However, treatment can offer people with RA a typical, comfortable life and prevent irreversible joint damage.

People can speak with their doctor about the risk of side effects and complications due to RA medications to decide on a treatment plan that suits them best.

According to a 2019 review of the scientific literature, first-line treatment of RA aims to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. First-line treatments include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.

Second-line management aims to slow or prevent serious joint problems, such as joint damage and deformity. Second-line treatments include disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

DMARDs alter the immune system’s response. Options include:

A doctor may also prescribe biologics, such as tocilizumab (Actemra), alone or alongside a DMARD.

In some cases, a doctor may suggest surgery. Surgery can reduce pain and increase mobility in people whose RA no longer responds to other treatments.

Surgery may involve removing or repairing damaged tendons. It could also involve realigning misplaced bones or fully replacing whole joints.

Lifestyle changes

A doctor may suggest a person take steps at home to manage their RA symptoms. This may include the following self-care measures:

Anyone with symptoms of RA should speak with a doctor. In the early stages, RA typically causes tenderness and pain in the joints. However, as it progresses, people may also have the following symptoms:

  • swelling and redness around the joints
  • stiff joints, especially in the morning
  • weakness
  • exhaustion
  • rheumatoid nodules, which are small, firm lumps under the skin

People with RA can also discuss any worsening RA symptoms with their doctor, alongside the frequency and severity of any RA flare-ups.

A doctor may refer them to a rheumatologist. This healthcare professional specializes in inflammatory conditions, such as RA.

Below are the answers to some frequently asked questions about RA and its treatment.

How long can you live with untreated rheumatoid arthritis?

The average person with RA has a reduced life expectancy relative to the general population.

According to a 2020 paper, people with RA may live 4.97 years fewer than people without the condition. However, treatment may reduce this loss in life expectancy.

What are the signs that RA is getting worse?

Signs of worsening RA include increased pain, stiffness, and deformities in affected joints. People may also notice symptoms in previously unaffected joints.

Flare-ups may also become more severe and frequent.

Is it possible to cure rheumatoid arthritis?

There is no known cure for RA. However, treatment aims to reduce the condition’s effects, such as joint pain and deformities, and slow progression by reducing the rate of joint damage.

In the short term, people with untreated RA may experience flare-ups that affect mobility, self-care, and daily functioning, including when socializing or working. Without treatments, flare-ups may be more common or severe.

Untreated RA may also increase the risk of long-term complications, including disability and joint deformity due to increased joint damage and inflammation. These symptoms may lead to complications, such as depression.

People can speak with a doctor or a rheumatologist about their treatment options when living with RA. Treatment can help relieve symptoms and slow joint deterioration.