World Arthritis Day is observed on 12 October every year to spread awareness about the disease and its many types. Spreading awareness about arthritis is vital because most people, especially those who are young, usually assume that arthritis is a disease related to old age and cannot affect you until you’re well over 50 or 60 years of age. This misconception can, in fact, harm you if you do have a type of early-onset arthritis and miss the signs.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of arthritis that has an early onset. It may generally show up between the ages of 30 and 50 years but in some cases can show up much earlier too. While it is believed that RA affects only 1% of the global population, a paper published by the American College of Rheumatology in 2012 indicated that the burden of this disease in India was quite high despite the prevalence being only 0.34%. This high burden is primarily because of lack of awareness, delayed diagnosis and, therefore, improper treatment.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

It is important for everyone to be aware of what RA is and what its primary symptoms are. Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disease. RA is characterized by chronic joint inflammation, usually located in the knee, feet, hands and fingers. This happens primarily because your immune system is overactive and is mistakenly attacking your joints instead of foreign microbes. If left untreated, RA can cause the destruction of bone joints, deformity and systemic illness that affects other organs too.

Early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis

Symptoms of RA may differ from person to person but, as with most autoimmune diseases, there are periods where the symptoms become glaringly apparent. These bouts are also known as flare-ups and the period when symptoms are less noticeable is known as remission. When a person gets an RA flare-up, the following symptoms may show up.

1. Joint stiffness: The joints on your fingers and toes are some of the smallest in the body, and if you feel stiffness in these joints, it may be a sign of RA. Stiffness in the small joints due to RA usually begins in the hands and may show up early in the mornings at first.

2. Joint pain: If you fail to notice the stiffness, you may eventually notice pain in the small joints – which is due to the natural progression of a flare-up. Stiffness leads to tenderness, which then leads to pain. This joint pain can be noticeable in the fingers, wrists, shoulders, knees, feet or ankles.

3. Fatigue: Like in the case of most autoimmune diseases, fatigue is a common early sign of RA. You may feel more tired than before and this fatigue may also be accompanied by a general feeling of ill-health or depressive thoughts.

4. Joint swelling: Inflammation in the joints can cause them to swell up and feel warm to the touch. This swelling may last throughout your flare-up, especially if it is left untreated. You may or may not experience mild swelling in the same joints in the next flare-up.

5. Fever: Where there is inflammation and pain, fever is likely to follow. Fever associated with RA is usually low-grade and if your temperature crosses 100 degrees Fahrenheit then it’s likely to be a symptom of a different infection or illness.

6. Numbness: Inflammation due to RA can put pressure on the nerves around the joints. This can cause numbness, a tingling sensation or even symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. You may also feel your finger joints squeaking or cracking when you move them. This is a sign of damaged cartilage and common in people with RA.

7. Loss of range of motion: Inflammation, tenderness and pain in your joints can also affect the muscles and ligaments around them and make mobility more difficult. If you observe that your hands or legs do not have the same range of motion as before, it could be a sign of RA.

For more information, read our article on Rheumatoid arthritis.

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