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Rheumatoid arthritis is a subtype of arthritis that can affect different regions of your body, aside from the joints. This article outlines 10 different ways that rheumatoid arthritis can affect the body.

Arthritis is a condition that leads to joint pain, swelling and inflammation. However, arthritis can affect other parts of the body as well. This is especially likely for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, a common subtype of arthritis, because rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, which essentially means that it affects all parts of your body. Furthermore, the drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can also negatively impact other parts of your body.

These are the ways in which rheumatoid arthritis can affect other regions of your body, divided by the organ that it affects.

1. Skin

The skin is the largest part of your body, and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the skin significantly. Firstly, patients with rheumatoid arthritis can develop nodules. In fact, almost half of all patients with rheumatoid arthritis develop growths called rheumatoid nodules. These tissues develop under the skin and over bony regions subjected to pressure — such as the fingers or elbows. Generally, these nodules disappear either on their own or through treatment.

Next, rheumatoid arthritis can also cause skin rashes due to inflammation in blood vessels. In extreme cases, patients develop skin ulcers on the legs or under their nails. Treatment for rashes involves treating the underlying inflammation.

Finally, some drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can have an adverse effect on the skin and make patients more susceptible to bruising. Furthermore, other drugs cause sun sensitivity.

2. Bones

Inflammation, which is rampant in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, is associated with loss of bone density thoughout the body, causing patients to have thin and brittle bones. A combination of physical activity, high-calcium diet and vitamin D can all help bones. However, in some cases, your doctor will need to prescribe you medication to encourage bone growth. Furthermore, corticosteroids, which are often used as immune system suppressants, can also cause bone thinning.

3. Eyes

Since inflammation is rampant in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, some people develop inflammation of the whites of their eyes, which is a condition known as scleritis. This disease can cause scarring of the eye. Scleritis can cause vision problem and will need to be treated with the help from an opthamologist. If untreated, inflammation of the eye can lead to blindness.

Additionally, rheumatoid arthritis can cause dryness of the eyes by causing damage to tear-producing glands. This causes you to feel like your eyes are dry and gritty. Finally, corticosteroids can cause the development of glaucoma and cataracts. Therefore, doctors recommend that rheumatoid arthritis patients get an eye check up once a year.

4. Mouth

Similar to the inflammation of the eyes, inflammation can also damage to the moisture-producing glands of the mouth, leading to dry mouth. You should talk to your doctor as they can provide you with medication to help increase the salivary production of your mouth as a delay in treatment can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Furthermore, some drugs used for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, such as methotrexate, can cause mouth sores or ulcers.

5. Lungs

Lung disease can develop in patients with arthritis due to inflammation. In fact, studies show that up to 80 percent of patients with rheumatoid arthritis will have some degree of lung involvement that is not severe enough to cause problems. Unfortunately, severe and long-term inflammation can cause the development of a fatal disease known as pulmonary fibrosis that causes difficulty breathing.

Furthermore, rheumatoid nodules, which typically develop on the skin, can also develop on the lung, though they are usually harmless.

Methotrexate, a commonly used drug for treatment of arthritis, can cause pneumonia which goes away when methotrexate is stopped. Then, patients can resume taking methotrexate in a few weeks.

Finally, suppressing the immune system using immune system suppressants can increase your chances of getting an infection in your lungs, such as tuberculosis.

6. Heart

Consistent inflammation of the blood vessels (due to systemic inflammation from arthritis) increases the chances of having atherosclerosis (which narrows blood vessels and causes formation of vessel-closing plaques). When these plaques break off, they can cause a heart attack and stroke. One study showed that patients with rheumatoid arthritis were at a 60 percent higher risk of heart attack. Patients can also develop pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart). Finally, the medications patients take for rheumatoid arthritis, such as methotrexate, DMARDS and biologics, can increase the risk of having a heart attack.

7. Liver

While rheumatoid arthritis does not have a direct impact on the liver, medications can cause liver failure. For example, long-term use of the pain reliever acetaminophen and methotrexate can lead to liver damage.

8. Kidneys

Similar to the liver, rheumatoid arthritis does not affect the kidneys directly, but instead is the result of medications you may be taking.

9. Blood

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis are at a higher risk for developing blood disorders including anemia (low blood cell counts), blood clots, and Felty syndrome (enlarged spleen and low white blood cell count). Finally, drug effects of rheumatoid arthritis medication (including corticosteroids) can lead to a lower number of platelets (which help blood clot).

10. Central nervous system

Inflammation in the body can cause compression of the nerves, leading to numbness or tingling.

  • Michaud, Kaleb, and Frederick Wolfe. "Comorbidities in rheumatoid arthritis." Best practice & research Clinical rheumatology 21.5 (2007): 885-906.
  • Maradit‐Kremers, Hilal, et al. "Cardiovascular death in rheumatoid arthritis: a population‐based study." Arthritis & Rheumatism 52.3 (2005): 722-732.
  • Landewe, Robert BM, et al. "Methotrexate effects in patients with rheumatoid arthritis with cardiovascular comorbidity." The Lancet 355.9215 (2000): 1616-1617.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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