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Complications - Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can put you at a higher risk of developing other conditions, particularly if it's 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's caused by compression of the nerve that controls sensation and movement in the hands (median nerve) and has symptoms such as:

  • aching
  • numbness
  • tingling in your thumb, fingers and part of the hand

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

Widespread inflammation

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition which 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 Sjögren's syndrome. Scleritis can cause eye redness and pain, whereas Sjögren's syndrome can cause dry eyes
  • blood vessels – inflammation of the blood vessels, known as vasculitis, is 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, with early treatment, inflammation in other parts of the body from rheumatoid arthritis is less likely.

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

Cardiovascular disease

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you're at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).

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

It's not clear exactly why people with rheumatoid arthritis are at an increased risk of these problems. You can reduce your risk by ensuring your arthritis is well controlled and by:

  • stopping smoking
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • exercising regularly

Cervical myelopathy

If you've had rheumatoid arthritis for some time, you're at increased risk of developing a problem at the top of your spine known as cervical myelopathy.

You may need a special assessment of your neck before any operation where you're given general anaesthetic.

This condition leads to dislocation of joints at the top of the spine, which puts pressure on the spinal cord. Although uncommon, it's a serious condition that can greatly affect your mobility and lead to permanent spinal cord damage if not treated quickly with surgery.

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Page last reviewed: 08 March 2023
Next review due: 08 March 2026