The Risks of Not Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis


Linda Wasmer Andrews

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If your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is causing only mild problems right now, it’s understandable that you might want to put treatment on the back burner—but that would be a big mistake.

When you have RA, the immune system, which normally protects your body against outside invaders, attacks the membrane lining your joints. Without treatment, RA can lead to painful, disabling joint damage. Just as importantly, chronic inflammation from RA may reach beyond your joints to affect other parts of your body. Left unchecked, it could harm a number of organs and tissues, from your heart and lungs to your skin and bones.

Taking Charge of Your Health

You don’t have to just accept that gloomy picture of the future, however. Getting prompt, appropriate care for RA helps decrease inflammation, relieve pain, and slow or stop joint damage. It also helps ward off non-joint complications and improve your overall health. The sooner you start treatment, the better you’ll be able to minimize the damage caused by RA.

Treat your RA to help protect:

  • Your joints. As RA progresses, it starts to destroy cartilage and bone within an affected joint. This destructive process begins within the first year or two of having the disease, which is why early treatment is ideal. But even if you’re already past that stage, getting treatment is still beneficial.

  • Your bones. Long-lasting inflammation from RA increases the chance of developing osteoporosis—a condition in which bones become less dense and more easily broken. Lack of physical activity due to joint problems only adds to the risk.

  • Your lungs. One in 10 people with RA eventually develops interstitial lung disease, characterized by inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. At times, the scarring worsens to the point where breathing becomes difficult.

  • Your heart. People with RA are up to 50% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the general population. RA ups the risk of having a heart attack. It also increases the chance of developing heart failure and dying shortly afterward.

  • Your blood. Uncontrolled inflammation from RA sometimes causes anemia—a decrease in red blood cells that leads to weakness and tiredness.

  • Your skin. Rheumatoid nodules—lumps of tissue under the skin, which often form on pressure points, such as the fingers or elbows—occur in about half of people with RA. In addition, inflammation of blood vessels due to RA may cause a skin rash or, in severe cases, open sores.

  • Your eyes. Eye dryness isthe most common eye problem associated with RA. Beyond that, inflammation from RA may affect the white of the eye (scleritis) or the layer between the white of the eye and the retina (uveitis). If not treated, the latter condition can lead to vision loss.

  • Your mouth. RA-related inflammation can damage saliva-producing glands, causing a dry mouth and setting the stage for tooth decay and gum disease.

Keeping Complications at Bay

Although a lot of RA complications are possible, they’re not inevitable. Treating your arthritis to get inflammation under control can greatly reduce long-range problems. Making healthy lifestyle choices—such as not smoking, eating wisely, and staying active—can lower your risk even more.

If you do develop new symptoms, let your doctor know. You’ll also need regular medical checkups and tests to keep tabs on changes in your health. That way, if any complications arise, you can find and treat them early, before they cause more serious problems.

Key Takeaways

  • Without treatment, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can lead to painful, disabling joint damage and could also harm a number of organs and tissues, from your heart and lungs to your skin and bones.

  • Getting prompt, appropriate care can help. The sooner you start treatment, the better you’ll be able to minimize the damage caused by RA.

  • You can keep RA complications at bay by making healthy lifestyle choices and attending regular medical checkups.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 20, 2017

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