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Rheumatoid Arthritis Complications

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect body and mind.

Inflamed blood vessels in the eye is just one rheumatoid arthritis complication. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Inflamed blood vessels in the eye is just one rheumatoid arthritis complication.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Complications

Though it is initially a disease of the joints, rheumatoid arthritis complications can involve nearly all organs in the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) occurs more frequently in women than men and generally begins between 40 and 60 years of age, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though the disease itself is not deadly, some complications of the disease can be fatal. Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy joints and leads to inflammation, pain and stiffness. Though there are now treatments that can stop or delay progression of the disease, RA can still be greatly debilitating. Joints can become deformed, making even ordinary activities painful or even impossible. One survey has found that 70 percent of patients with RA feel they are prevented from living a fully productive life. A separate study showed that one-third of people with the disease cease work within five years of acquiring it. Destruction to bones and ligaments caused by the disease is irreversible, and though prompt treatment of the disease can prevent initial damage, side effects of RA treatments can add to the severity of symptoms.

Complications of rheumatoid arthritis can affect much of the body, including the cardiovascular and neurological systems, joints and mental health. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which is not as common as adult RA and usually improves after several months or years, also has multiple serious complications.

Cardiovascular Complications

Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to a number of cardiovascular complications, some of which are life-threatening. RA may cause the inflammation of the blood vessels in the eye, causing scleritis and episcleritis, which can encourage corneal damage and cause eye redness or sensations of grittiness. Rheumatoid vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, can lead to a variety of problems, including stomach ulcers, mouth ulcers, lung damage, nerve disorders and skin infections. Skin problems occur in a number of patients with RA, especially on the fingers and under fingernails. Sometimes complications are severe and include rashes, ulcers, blisters and lumps. Severe skin problems tend to indicate more serious cases of RA. Vasculitis may also affect the brain and heart and lead to strokes, heart attacks or heart failure, all of which can be fatal.

RA can inflame the muscle in the sac around the heart and cause a number of problems. Some evidence shows that RA increases the probability of having heart disease, probably because of the damage to arteries and heart tissue. According to the New York Times, studies have shown that people with RA are 30 to 50 percent more likely to have heart vessel blockages and 60 to 70 percent more likely to die than people not suffering from the disease.

Joint Damage and Skeletal Complications

As RA progresses, the inflammation within a joint destroys the tissues surrounding the joint, including muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bone. This can eventually eliminate all joint function, and may necessitate surgery for joint replacement or tendon reconstruction. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, researchers believe that bone damage starts occurring within the first or second year after the onset of RA.

Osteoporosis, which causes a decrease in bone density, is more common in postmenopausal women with RA, and is also more common in men over the age of 60 with the disease. RA can also cause the cervical spine to become unstable, a potentially fatal joint complication.

Mental Health Complications

Studies suggest that patients with chronic pain, which can result from RA, are more likely to suffer from depression and reductions in physical, psychological and social health. The risk for depression has been shown to increase with the lack of mobility or ability to partake in social activities.

Other Complications

Rheumatoid arthritis can increase the risk of a variety of other complications, including:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome or other mild forms of peripheral neuropathy
  • Disorders that affect the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord
  • Anemia
  • Lung diseases like interstitial fibrosis or pulmonary hypertension
  • Non-Hodgkins lymphoma

Pregnant women with RA are more likely to deliver their babies prematurely, and also more likely to develop hypertension than other women during the last trimester of pregnancy.

Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis Complications

Two of the most common complications of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) are eye inflammation and growth interference. Children with certain types of JRA are more likely to develop eye diseases like iritis, the inflammation of the iris. Children with JRA should regularly see an ophthalmologist to prevent eye inflammation from leading to cataracts, calcium deposits in the cornea, glaucoma and eventual blindness. JRA can also interfere with a child's bone and growth development. Corticosteroids and other medications used to treat JRA may also stunt growth.

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