More than 2 million Americans—about two-thirds of them women—have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It’s an autoimmune disease that progressively inflames the tissue lining your joints, heart, lungs and blood vessels. Joint inflammation damages the cushion between bones and tendons. It also erodes bone and cartilage, leaving pain and deformity in its wake. Inflammation around the heart and lungs can lead to chest pain and shortness of breath. And blood vessel inflammation can lead to leg ulcers. Early treatment with the right drug therapy may improve symptoms and keep RA from progressing.
Unfortunately, no single test confirms RA, so diagnosing it can be tricky. Signs and symptoms are often subtle and mimic other conditions. These may include:
- tender, warm, swollen joints
- morning stiffness (for more than 15 minutes)
- fatigue and feeling blah
- muscle aches
- persistent low-grade fever
- appetite loss
- lumps beneath the skin, usually near the elbows
See your healthcare provider about joint pain, stiffness or swelling that lasts more than two weeks. He or she may refer you to a rheumatologist—a specialist who can help determine whether you have RA and which treatment plan is best for you.
Studies show that powerful, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, when given early, can slow RA’s progression. The sooner RA is diagnosed, the better your chances of maintaining an active, productive life.