The Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory type of arthritis. The disease is also classified as an autoimmune disease because certain immune cells malfunction and attack a person's own body.

About 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, one of the most common types of inflammatory arthritis. Approximately 75 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis are women. Rheumatoid arthritis typically begins in middle age, but children and young adults can also develop the disease.

People of all races and ethnic backgrounds can develop rheumatoid arthritis.

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is still unknown, but researchers are gaining a better understanding of how the immune system and genetic factors affect the inflammatory processes that cause rheumatoid arthritis to develop. As researchers continue to work on the cause and cure for rheumatoid arthritis, it's important for you, to recognize the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis so you can:

Recognizing Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis usually develops gradually, but some people experience sudden onset of symptoms: one day they are perfectly healthy and the next they are dealing with rheumatoid arthritis. Symptoms commonly associated with rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Joint pain, joint swelling, joint stiffness, and warmth around the affected joint
  • Morning stiffness that lasts one or more hours
  • Symmetrical pattern of affected joints, meaning the same joint on both sides of the body is affected (e.g., both knees)
  • Small joints of the hands and feet are characteristically involved, although any joint can be affected
  • Rheumatoid nodules (firm lumps under the skin), found on elbows and hands of about one-fifth of people with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Fatigue and noticeable loss of energy
  • Low grade fever and sometimes flu-like symptoms
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, anemia associated with chronic diseases, depression
  • Dry eyes and dry mouth associated with a secondary condition Sjogren's syndrome
  • Joint deformity and instability from damage to cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and bone
  • Limited range of motion in affected joints
  • Flares and remission of disease activity is characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis may have systemic effects (i.e., affect the organs of the body)

No two rheumatoid arthritis cases are exactly the same. There is so much variety among the symptoms that some researchers suspect rheumatoid arthritis is not one disease but rather several diseases with commonalities.


  • Don't ignore pain that persists.
  • Don't assume you simply injured yourself.
  • Consult a rheumatologist (a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating rheumatoid arthritis patients as well as those with other rheumatic diseases).
  • When you consult your rheumatologist, always discuss symptoms that have improved or worsened, as well as any new symptoms.


Ruderman, Eric, MD and Tambar, Siddharth, MD. ​Rheumatoid Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology. Updated August 2013.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: Handout on Health. NIAMS. February 2016.