Rheumatoid arthritis - Complications 

Complications of rheumatoid arthritis 

Having rheumatoid arthritis can put you at a higher risk of developing other conditions, particularly if it is not well controlled.

Some of these conditions are described below.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

It is the result of compression of the nerve that controls sensation and movement in the hands (median nerve) and can cause symptoms such as aching, numbness and tingling in your thumb, fingers and part of the hand.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes be controlled with wrist splints or corticosteroid injections, although surgery to release the pressure on the median nerve may be needed in severe cases.

Read more about treating carpal tunnel syndrome.

Widespread inflammation

As rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition, it can cause inflammation to develop in other parts of your body, such as the:

  • Lungs – inflammation of the lungs or lung lining can lead to pleurisy or pulmonary fibrosis, which can cause chest pain, a persistent cough and shortness of breath.
  • Heart – inflammation of the tissue around the heart can lead to pericarditis, which causes chest pain.
  • Eyes – inflammation of the eyes can lead to scleritis or Sjogren's syndrome. Scleritis can cause eye redness and pain, whereas Sjogren's syndrome can cause dry eyes.
  • Blood vessels – inflammation of the blood vessels is known as vasculitis. This can lead to the thickening, weakening, narrowing and scarring of blood vessel walls. In serious cases, it can affect blood flow to your body's organs and tissues and can be life-threatening.

However, thanks to early treatment, inflammation due to rheumatoid arthritis affecting other parts of the body is becoming less common. 

Joint damage

If rheumatoid arthritis is not treated early or is not well controlled, the inflammation in your joints could lead to significant and permanent damage.

Problems that can affect the joints include:

  • damage to nearby bone and cartilage (a tough, flexible tissue that covers the surface of joints)
  • damage to nearby tendons (flexible tissue that attach muscle to bone), which could cause them to break (rupture)
  • joint deformities

These problems will sometimes need to be treated with surgery to prevent loss of function in the affected joints. 

Cardiovascular disease

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) than the population at large.

CVD is a general term that describes conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels, and it includes life-threatening problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

It's not clear exactly why people with rheumatoid arthritis are at an increased risk of these problems, but you can reduce your risk by ensuring your arthritis is well controlled and by reducing the impact of other factors that contribute to CVD, such as by stopping smoking, eating healthily and exercising regularly.

Read more about preventing CVD.

Cervical myelopathy

If you have had rheumatoid arthritis for some time, you are at increased risk of developing cervical myelopathy and you may need a special assessment of your neck before any operation where you are put to sleep.

This condition is caused by dislocation of joints at the top of the spine, which put pressure on the spinal cord. Although relatively uncommon, it is a serious condition that can greatly affect your mobility and can lead to permanent spinal cord damage if not treated promptly with surgery.

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Page last reviewed: 04/08/2014

Next review due: 04/08/2016

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irenie said on 16 March 2013

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