While rheumatoid arthritis (RA) primarily affects the joints, it also increases the risk of developing other serious medical conditions. These conditions can affect anything from vision and hearing to bone density and lung function. Without treatment, these conditions can have a significant effect on overall health and lifestyle.
Below are several symptoms and medical conditions that may be linked to rheumatoid arthritis. Most of these conditions are uncommon, and they are more likely to develop when rheumatoid arthritis is either longstanding or not well-managed. In addition, treatments are often available to help manage symptoms and limit possible long-term effects.
Eye Dryness, Irritation, Pain, or Blurred Vision
Several conditions that affect the eyes are associated with rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions may be temporary or life-long and can cause a wide range of symptoms.
- Sjögren’s syndrome can cause dry eye as well as dry mouth. This condition affects the body’s ability to produce saliva and tears. About 30% of people with RA develop Sjögren’s syndrome.1
- Keratoconjunctivitis sicca2,3 affects 15% to 25% of people with RA.4 This condition occurs when the eyes cannot produce enough tears. The lack of moisture may cause eyes to feel dry, irritated, itchy, burning, and/or sensitive to light.
- Episcleritis2 can cause eye irritation, redness, and swelling. Episcleritis may only affect one small part of an eyeball. The affected area may appear raised, red, and/or yellowish. This condition typically goes away on its own, but it can be treated medically.
- Scleritis2,3 can cause deep aching pain in the eye. The eye may water excessively and be sensitive to light. Part or all of the eye may become discolored, appearing red or purple. This is an uncommon but serious condition that can permanently affect vision.
- Keratitis,2,3 or inflammation of the cornea, can cause blurred vision and sensitivity to bright light. It may feel like there is something stuck in the eye.
Report changes in vision to a health care provider immediately.
Shortness of Breath or Coughing
The lungs are often affected in people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Lung conditions may cause coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Rarely, these conditions become life-threatening.
- Interstitial lung disease is an umbrella term used to describe many disorders that cause scarring of the walls of the lungs and certain nearby structures. In people with RA, scarring is typically caused by chronic inflammation. The initial symptoms of interstitial lung disease typically include shortness of breath and a cough.
- Pleural effusion, also called pulmonary effusion or water on the lungs, occurs when fluid collects in the chest cavity outside the lungs. Pleural effusion can cause sharp chest pain, coughing, and shortness of breath. It may be noticeably more difficult to breathe when lying down. nodules in the lungs typically have no symptoms but may increase the risk for potentially life-threatening conditions, such as a collapsed lung.5,6 Rheumatoid nodules in the lungs are rare and account for less than 1% of all rheumatoid nodules.
The chances of developing lung conditions related to RA are increased by smoking.
Shortness of breath or coughing and risk of lymphoma
Rarely, shortness of breath or coughing is a sign of lymphoma, which is a cancer of the blood and lymph system. RA doubles the chances of getting lymphoma, raising the lifetime risk from about 2% to 4%.7,8
Other signs and symptoms of lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, itchy skin, and/or night sweats. Swollen lymph nodes appear as lumps under the skin. Unlike rheumatoid nodules, these lumps are most likely to appear in the groin, armpit, or neck.
Chest Pain or a Racing, Pounding Heart
Inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis may worsen or trigger heart problems. These heart problems include, but may not be limited to:
- Coronary heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or clogged arteries, is 1.5 to 2 times more common in people with RA than in the general population.9 Coronary heart disease can lead to heart attack and stroke. It can cause a variety of symptoms, including shortness of breath and tightness in the chest, especially during physical activity.
- Pericarditis is inflammation of the delicate membrane that surrounds the heart, called the pericardium. Pericarditis can cause sudden chest pain and may be mistaken for a heart attack.
- Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle itself. It can cause damage to heart tissue and—depending on severity and treatment—may be life-threatening. Myocarditis symptoms vary and may include fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling (edema), and chest pain. The heart may feel like it is racing, fluttering, or pounding.
A physician may refer to any one of these conditions as cardiovascular disease, which is an umbrella term used for all types of diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the United States.
Skin Rashes or Open Sores
Visible changes to the skin are occasionally associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Rashes and open sores (also called ulcers or lesions) may be painful, itchy, or burning. While these skin abnormalities frequently develop on the lower legs, they can appear anywhere on the body.
Rashes and sores that may be associated with RA can vary widely in appearance. Examples include the following:
- Rheumatoid small-cell vasculitis 10,11 can cause a rash of dark red or purple bumps on the skin. The bumps may form lesions and scab over.
- Urticarial vasculitis10 causes hives or raised pink patches. The patches may have whitish centers. On darker skin, changes in skin color may be less noticeable, but the skin will still be raised.
- Panniculitis10 refers to a family of conditions that cause painful red or purple lumps to develop on the lower legs. The most common type of panniculitis, erythema nodosum, may look like multiple bruises on the shins.
- Pyoderma gangrenosum10 typically begins as small red bumps that expand into painful open sores, sometimes in a matter of days. This condition is very rare and typically affects the skin on the lower legs.
- Infections may cause red or pink skin and eruptions that look like blisters or pimples. The affected area may ooze fluid or be crusted over.
Research shows that using biologic medications increases the risk for skin infections and rashes, including psoriasis.12,13 For example, a 14-year study of 583 people who took biologics found nearly 12% (68 people) experienced at least one skin infection and more than 10% (59 people) had at least one bout of psoriasis.14
Rashes in the early stages RA
While not common, skin rashes may appear along with the first signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.10 The diagnosing physician will need to rule out other autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and psoriatic arthritis, that are more likely to cause skin abnormalities.
Foamy, Pink, or Brown Urine
Research suggests 30% of people with RA experience kidney problems at some point,15 though only a portion will develop chronic kidney disease. The kidneys filter blood, removing waste and excess water to create urine. When there is a problem with the kidneys, urine may look different—possibly foamy, pink, or brown.
Kidney problems can also cause:
- Fatigue and/or insomnia
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the lower leg, ankles, and feet
- Puffy eyes
- Poor appetite
- Muscle cramping
Swelling related to kidney problems may also be less tender and painful than swelling related to an RA flare.
Kidney problems may be the result of:
- Body-wide inflammation related to RA
- Medications used to treat RA, including but not limited to methotrexate and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Aleve, Advil, and Celebrex
The most common kidney problems associated with RA include mesangial glomerulonephritis (GN), membranous nephropathy, and secondary amyloidosis.15 Making an exact diagnosis typically requires a surgical biopsy and is not always necessary for treatment.
While kidney conditions can be serious and lead to chronic kidney disease, they may also be relatively mild or reversible with treatment. Physicians must evaluate each person individually.
Recommended treatment may include changes to medication, especially if medications are the suspected cause of kidney problems. Other first-line treatments may include taking steps to control blood pressure and making lifestyle changes, such as changing diet, exercising regularly, and quitting tobacco products.16
Broken or Brittle Bones
Rheumatoid arthritis is associated with a loss in bone mineral density,17,18 which is the hallmark sign of osteoporosis. In fact, osteoporosis is considered typical in people who have had rheumatoid arthritis for a long time.19
Certain medications can also increase the risk of developing osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia. For example, prednisone and other corticosteroids, which may be prescribed to treat newly diagnosed RA and RA flares, are associated with a loss of bone mineral density.20
Osteoporosis causes bones to become porous and weaker. Osteoporotic bones are:
- More prone to breaking
- Less suitable for joint replacement or other orthopedic surgeries
A bone break can have a negative effect on joint mechanics, even after the bone has healed, increasing the risk for osteoarthritis.
Puffy, Bleeding Gums
- Gingivitis (gum inflammation), which causes gums to be irritated, swollen, and red
- Periodontitis (gum disease), which causes gums to bleed and recede and may result in bad breath, teeth shifting, and tooth loss
Gingivitis is reversible with treatment, including regular dental cleanings and home care that includes daily brushing and flossing. Periodontitis is more challenging to treat than gingivitis and may include medical treatment. Severe cases may be treated with surgery.
Read more about Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Symptoms