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Early Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

March 5, 2018 | Orthopedics

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—a disorder that inflames the joints and can lead to significant discomfort—often develop slowly. They may be present at one time then absent at another, and how they progress is different for each person.

The earlier you can diagnose and treat RA, the better your chances of reducing overall joint damage and preventing resulting disability. Distinguishing symptoms of RA from those of other kinds of arthritis can be difficult, however, so here are some signs to look for:

Pain in Specific Joints

In most cases, your doctor will look for a combination of pain and swelling in your joints to diagnosis RA. The condition is generally characterized by a specific pattern when it comes to symptoms: the same joints on both sides of the body will be affected simultaneously, though this pattern isn’t always visible early on. In other cases, pain associated with RA might start in a single, large joint, such as the shoulder or knee.

During the earlier stages of RA, you may notice joint pain caused in these areas:

  • Feet: Several areas of the feet may show symptoms, including redness and swelling at the top of the feet or tenderness in joints at the the base of the toes. Walking can become painful, and you may subconsciously move your weight to your heels while walking (the heels can also have pain in some situations).
  • Wrists: The wrist is the most common arm joint affected by RA, and patients find that it can be tough to bend the wrist backward.
  • Hands: Often the first joints to show RA symptoms, the hands often exhibit tenderness when moving or squeezing items. Grip strength may noticeably decrease, and there might be swelling and redness across the entire hand.
  • Elbow: Swelling and inflammation in the elbow can lead to nerve compression, which can cause the fingers to go numb and tingle.


Numbness or Tingling

This is most common in the fingers and extremities. It may progress to a burning sensation in some cases—this is called carpal tunnel syndrome. Another common sign is a squeaking or crackling noise from the hands or feet.

Joint Swelling

Inflammation is a big part of RA, and it is often mild early on. The joints may be larger than usual or warm to the touch, and this may last anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks. As the condition progresses, these episodes will increase in frequency.

Fatigue and Weight Loss

In some cases, the first symptom of RA is unusual feelings of tiredness. This may come weeks or even months before you see other symptoms, and may appear in waves before disappearing again for periods at a time. Fatigue may also lead to weight loss that has little other explanation.


Common in the morning for multiple forms of arthritis, stiffness may last anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours. Degenerative types of arthritis are usually short-lived, while longer periods of stiffness is more indicative of inflammatory arthritis and RA. In addition, joint stiffness in smaller joints generally signals RA—these symptoms can flare up seemingly at random, often beginning in the hands.

Range of Motion Limitations

Instability and deformation can be the result of inflammation in the joints, which can lead to difficulty performing specific motions. You might find difficulty bending or straightening certain areas. Regular, moderate exercise can help improve this symptom.

Mild Fever

A fever by itself is likely just a fever, but one that is accompanied by other symptoms may indicate the presence of RA. A severe fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, however, is likely unrelated.

Your doctor can offer additional recommendations if he or she suspects you are developing rheumatoid arthritis.


Our staff is trained to handle a variety of orthopedic problems and provide sports medicine care. Our physicians take the time to individualize your treatment plan, and we care for you and your family with the same state-of-the-art techniques we use with Olympic athletes.




“Early Signs & Symptoms.”

“9 Early Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis.”



The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.