Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often starts suddenly, and mysteriously, causing you to ask yourself what could be the source of this debilitating joint pain, stiffness or swelling, or that general feeling of illness. After medical office visits, examinations and tests, getting your rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is at least an answer to why your body is going through such sudden changes. But you may have many more questions and concerns about how RA could affect your daily life.

RA is a Chronic, Autoimmune Disease

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that currently has no cure. It’s chronic, which means it lasts for life. It is also systemic, or a disease that affects many different organs and areas of the body, not just one.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system, which normally produces disease-fighting agents to attack foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses, mysteriously turns against itself. Instead of protecting the body, these agents often attack it, causing inflammation. In a person with RA, inflammatory agents are overproduced and inflammation rages unchecked.

How Could RA Affect My Body?

RA typically attacks joints, and often strikes in symmetric fashion, meaning it attacks matching joints like knees, hands or hips on both sides of the body.

What you can expect when inflammation strikes your joints may include:

• Pain
• Swelling
• Redness
• Stiffness
• Tenderness
• Reduced flexibility

In addition, you may experience terrible fatigue, or an all-over weariness that saps your strength, making it difficult to perform your job or daily tasks like housework or taking care of yourself or your children. You might notice joint stiffness strikes more strongly in the morning, just as you wake up for the day.

If you typically wake up early to shower, dress, help your family get ready for their days, or make breakfast, RA may make you feel as if you can’t even get out of bed. Some people with RA modify their morning routines to leave more time for a hot shower or flexibility stretching to ease stiffness and pain.

You may notice general feelings of illness at times. These symptoms could feel like the flu, and include body aches or nausea. You might also experience unexplained weight loss. Your ability to grip with your hands – to hold a pen or a cooking spoon – may be reduced. In addition, probably due to these symptoms, you might experience mood swings or feelings of loss and sadness. All of these symptoms may be addressed with medications and with regular physical activity, but you should inform your doctor if you experience any of them.

RA affects the entire body, so in some cases it may strike other organs like the heart, lungs, eyes, spleen, skin and mouth, causing inflammation that could be serious. About half the people with RA develop lumps of tissue under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. These can be sensitive and make activities using those affected joints more difficult – such as holding a pen if a nodule develops on the finger. Others may develop irritating skin rashes, or even a serious inflammation of the blood vessels called vasculitis.

RA could cause pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart lining that can cause chest pain. RA could also cause a condition called scleritis, an eye inflammation that could impair vision. While you may not experience these conditions, you and your healthcare professionals should monitor all of your organs and systems to watch for inflammation. In other words, getting regular eye exams and physicals is very important if you have RA.