You probably know all about the swelling and pain in your joints that comes and goes when you have rheumatoid arthritis. But don't neglect unusual symptoms that crop up on other parts of your body. They could be symptoms of complications or side effects of medicine you take.
Watch out for these 10 problems, and call your doctor if you spot them.
No. 1. Fever
Some RA drugs, such as biologics, affect the immune system, your body's defense against germs. You may not be able to fight off illnesses as easily as you used to.
That's why you need to be on the lookout for a fever. It could signal something serious, "either very active disease or an infection," says Catherine MacLean, MD, PhD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Infections can get worse quickly if you're taking medication that keeps your immune system from working, she says, so it's important to get treatment quickly.
No. 2. Breathing Trouble
If you have RA you're at a higher risk for scarring of the tissues in the lungs. So see your doctor right away if you have a cough that won't go away or you're short of breath during normal activities.
No. 3. Stomach Pain or Digestive Problems
Rheumatoid arthritis raises your chances of ulcers, stomach bleeding, and conditions such as colitis and diverticulitis. This may be because of inflammation from RA or because of side effects from medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids.
You're also more likely to have constipation or diarrhea, which could be a warning sign that the amount of good and bad bacteria in your intestine is out of balance.
No. 4. Numbness
Your swollen joints can push against nerves, which can make you feel tingling in different parts of your body. Common spots for this to happen include your elbows, ankles, and wrists.
Inflammation of blood vessels, called vasculitis, can happen with RA and also cause numbness.
No. 5. Eye Problems
The inflammation that comes with your disease can damage parts of your eyes, including the sclera (the "whites" of your eyes) and the cornea (a thin protective layer).
"Eye pain or new eye redness that is getting worse should be evaluated immediately," MacLean says. Talk to your doctor about any vision changes that happen over a matter of days or weeks, too.
No. 6. Broken Bones
Some RA meds can trigger bone loss, which raises your risk of fractures. Your bones may also become weaker if you avoid exercise and physical activity.
A broken bone may be a clue that you're developing osteoporosis, a disease that causes your bones to get thinner. It can be treated once you're tested and diagnosed.
No. 7. Dry Mouth and Eyes
Some people with RA also get Sjögren's syndrome, another inflammatory condition. If you have it, you may have trouble chewing and swallowing, or it may feel like something gritty is in your eyes. Women can also have vaginal dryness and pain during sex.
There's no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, but medications or lifestyle changes may help you manage your symptoms.
No. 8. Mood Changes
Depression or anxiety sometimes go along with RA. It happens to about one-third of people with arthritis, according to a CDC study.
Talk to you doctor if you notice any changes in your mood. He can suggest therapy or medicine to help treat it.
No. 9. Hearing Loss
Some research suggests that RA or the drugs used to treat it may cause hearing problems. If you or your family notice a change in your ability to hear, your doctor may be able to adjust your medications or recommend a hearing aid.
No. 10. Chest Pains
A 2015 study by Jeffrey Sparks, MD, a rheumatologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and his colleagues, found that people with RA are more likely to die from heart-related problems than those without the disease. "Chest pain, especially with activity, should be monitored by a physician," he says. "Our hope is that we can turn back the clock before patients develop these full-blown conditions."
Overall, about 40% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have symptoms in areas on their body besides joints, MacLean says, like their skin, muscles, bones, eyes, and lungs. If you have mild symptoms that have developed slowly, tell your doctor about them during your next visit. Make an appointment right away if you've had any sudden or serious changes in the way you feel or how you respond to treatment.