Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Symptoms

People with rheumatoid arthritis may experience both physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA often affects the joints in the hands and wrist first, though initial symptoms can also appear in the balls of the feet, knees, ankles or other joints. Over time, more joints may be affected, most commonly the joints of the neck’s cervical spine, the shoulders, elbows, ankles, jaw,1 and even joints between very small bones in the inner ear.


In addition to the pain and reduced mobility associated with joint swelling and inflammation of the affected joint, common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can include:

  • Painful joints that are:
    • Tender
    • Swollen
    • Stiff and difficult to bend or flex
    • Warm to the touch
    • Red in appearance
    • Spongy or “boggy” when pressed
    • Affected symmetrically; for example, a person’s right and left wrists will both show symptoms
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome, which can sometimes be caused by RA inflammation in the wrist.
  • Watch Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Video

  • Tenosynovitis—inflammation of the tendon’s delicate lining—in the hand. At least one study suggests that tenosynovitis of fingers’ flexor tendons is a strong predictor of rheumatoid arthritis.2
  • Watch De Quervain's Tenosynovitis Video

  • Enduring stiffness that starts in the morning and lasts an hour or more, even following light to moderate activity.
  • Excessive, whole-body fatigue that does not seem related to physical exertion or sleep.
  • See Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fatigue

  • A low-grade fever that is always or almost always present.
  • A general feeling of malaise or flu-like symptoms.
  • Unexpected weight loss and loss of appetite.
  • Decreased joint function that can make simple tasks, such as opening a jar or starting the car, difficult; pain may be experienced after periods of increased joint use, such as heavy gripping or grasping of an object, and can occur at rest.
  • The sensation of joint grinding, which can occur when soft tissue damage causes the bones of the joint to rub against each other.
  • See What Is Crepitus?

  • Rheumatoid nodules that form under the skin. These nodules are firm bumps that range in size from pea-size to walnut-size and are mostly seen on or near elbows or fingers.
  • See Hand Rheumatoid Arthritis Signs and Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis affects everyone differently: some people are in constant discomfort while others experience extended periods of minor symptoms punctuated by painful flare-ups.

Emotional Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

In addition to physical symptoms, patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis can also experience concomitant issues such as:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Low self-esteem

See A Look at Chronic Arthritis Pain and Depression, Part 1


The combined physical and emotional components of a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis can permeate into work life, social, and family life. Fortunately, early detection and appropriate treatment programs, such as medications and exercise therapy, and/or activity modification can help sustain an active, productive life for most people.

Read about When Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms Are Serious


  • 1.Wolfe F, Katz RS, Michaud K. Jaw pain: its prevalence and meaning in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia. J Rheumatol. 2005;32(12):2421-8.
  • 2.Eshed I, Feist E, Althoff CE, et al. Tenosynovitis of the flexor tendons of the hand detected by MRI: an early indicator of rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2009;48(8):887-91.