Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis 

Rheumatoid arthritis mainly affects the joints, although it can cause problems in other parts of the body too.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis often develop gradually over several weeks, but some cases can progress quickly over a number of days.

The symptoms vary from person to person. They can come and go, and may change over time. You may occasionally experience flares when your condition deteriorates and your symptoms become more severe.

Symptoms affecting the joints

Rheumatoid arthritis is primarily a condition that affects the joints. It can cause problems in any joint in the body, although the small joints in the hands and feet are often the first to be affected.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects the joints symmetrically (both sides of the body at the same time and to the same extent), but this is not always the case.

The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis affecting the joints are outlined below.

Pain

The joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis is usually a throbbing and aching pain. It is often worse in the mornings and after a period of inactivity.

Stiffness

Joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis can feel stiff. For example, if your hands are affected, you may not be able to fully bend your fingers or form a fist.

Like joint pain, the stiffness is often more severe in the morning or after a period of inactivity. Morning stiffness associated with another type of arthritis called osteoarthritis usually wears off within 30 minutes of getting up, but rheumatoid arthritis morning stiffness often lasts longer than this.

Swelling, warmth and redness

The lining of joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis become inflamed, which can cause the joints to swell, and become hot and tender to touch.

In some people, firm swellings called rheumatoid nodules can also develop under the skin around affected joints.

Additional symptoms

As well as problems affecting the joints, some people with rheumatoid arthritis experience a range of more general symptoms, such as:

  • tiredness and a lack of energy
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • sweating
  • a poor appetite
  • weight loss

The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis can also sometimes cause problems affecting other areas of the body, including dry eyes if the eyes are affected and chest pain if the heart or lungs are affected. Read more about the complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

There are a number of conditions that can cause problems such as joint pain and stiffness, so it's important to get a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis as soon as possible is particularly important because early treatment can help stop the condition getting worse and reduce the risk of further problems such as joint damage.

Read more about diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis.


Page last reviewed: 04/08/2014

Next review due: 04/08/2016