Most people with active rheumatoid arthritis have a limited range of motion in the joints most affected by the disease, Dr. Wallace says. For many people, this includes the joints in their hands, which makes it hard to do everyday things, like drink coffee. “A lot of people with active rheumatoid arthritis have problems with things like holding coffee cups, gripping steering wheels, chopping vegetables, things that require a tight grip,” she says. This is often worse in the morning and gets worse when a person is experiencing a flare.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend using supportive devices, like finger splints, to correct mild deformities. In situations where you have scar tissue or your joint function is severely limited, surgery may be necessary to regain proper functioning, according to Merck Manual.
3. You change your habits or activities to accommodate your joints.
Be mindful of how you move and feel while doing various activities throughout the day, such as yoga, standing, or cooking. For example, are you suddenly making adjustments so that your hands feel comfortable while making dinner? Are you avoiding clothes with buttons because you can't button them? These subtle behavior changes can indicate rheumatoid arthritis progression, Dr. Chan says. “You might think that [these changes] are not a big deal because you can easily adjust how you do things and feel fine, but you want to bring that to your doctor’s attention,” she says.
Even if rheumatoid arthritis isn’t necessarily more painful, and the limitations are easy enough to work around, adjusting your treatment plan to address any underlying inflammation can help the disease from progressing.
4. You have pain and tenderness in new joints.
Typically, the joints that get worse during rheumatoid arthritis progression are the same joints that were most affected at the beginning of your diagnosis. “But people can develop changes in new joints that hadn’t been affected before,” Dr. Wallace says. So if you suddenly have chronic neck pain, then you may want to ask your doctor if it’s related to your rheumatoid arthritis. Generally, rheumatoid arthritis affects the smaller joints first, like those in the fingers and toes, and impacts larger joints like the knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders as it progresses, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Chan says it’s important that your doctor knows about any new joint symptoms. One of the ways your physician can monitor your rheumatoid arthritis is by counting how many swollen and tender joints you have during each visit, Dr. Chan says. It’s a sign the disease has progressed whenever new joints are added to the list.
5. Your joints look different.
Looking at your joints can help detect rheumatoid arthritis progression. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause visible distortions as the condition damages your tissues and bones. There are various ways that your joints may look different. For example, your finger or wrist joints may deviate to the side and bend toward your pinky if you developed an ulnar deviation, Dr. Chan says. It’s worth notifying your doctor any time your joints look different because these structural changes could be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis progression, Dr. Chan says.
6. You develop new and unusual symptoms unrelated to your joints.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, meaning it can affect multiple tissues in the body, not just joints,” Dr. Wallace says. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 40% of people with rheumatoid arthritis experience symptoms in other areas of the body beyond the joints. (The eyes, lungs, heart, skin, kidneys, and blood vessels are common areas that can become inflamed because of rheumatoid arthritis.) “A lot of people develop inflammation in these other areas later in the disease as it progresses,” Dr. Wallace notes. You may not always notice symptoms,, or even realize that a change in your eyesight or shortness of breath is in any way related to rheumatoid arthritis. This is why it’s really important to tell your doctor about any new symptoms or changes in your health, even if it seems unrelated. Uncontrolled inflammation in these areas can lead to more serious health impacts—like increasing cardiovascular disease risk, for example—so it’s important to keep your physician in the loop so it can be addressed, Dr. Wallace says.
It’s easy to think of these changes as no big deal. But being mindful of your pain levels, mobility, and overall health can help you spot the signs of rheumatoid arthritis progression. Understandably, experimenting with new medications can feel stressful, but finding a treatment plan that helps you feel your best will allow you to move and live better in the long term.
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