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Each person with RA is unique. The disease can vary greatly from person to person. Though some people have periods of long remission and some have symptoms that come and go, most people with RA have progressive disease. This means their RA gradually and consistently worsens over time.
According to the CDC, early diagnosis and treatment (within six months of experiencing symptoms) can play a role in keeping RA in a period of remission. However, some people with RA will have progressive symptoms even with treatment.
Whether or not your RA will progress depends on many factors, such as:
As RA progresses, joint pain, swelling and stiffness become the main symptoms, particularly in the hands and fingers. Inflammation, which also worsens, can cause the joints to feel warm to the touch. Daily activities such as getting dressed, walking or opening jars may become more difficult. RA can progress to the point of joint deformity, severely limiting the ability to perform daily activities. Over time, the pain and inflammation can become disabling. As RA progresses, other areas of your body can also be affected, such as:
Depression is common among people with chronic illnesses such as progressive RA. In fact, people with RA have twice the risk of being depressed versus people who don’t have the disease. Depression can cause an increase in pain and makes it harder to live with RA.
“Many people assume they can handle the depression on their own, not recognizing that depression is actually a part of the disease of RA and tends to worsen without treatment,” said Dr. Laurie Ferguson, psychologist and Vice President for Education, CreakyJoints. “When a person with RA is progressing, getting some type of emotional support is key. Depression is not something to go through alone.”
If you feel sad, anxious or have feelings of hopelessness, it’s important to discuss these feelings with your doctor. Anti-depressant medication and/or talk therapy with a therapist who is experienced in working with people with chronic illnesses can be helpful. Support groups in which you share your feelings with others who have similar experiences can also help you feel less depressed. In addition, exercise can be very beneficial in improving overall mood.
If you have symptoms of RA, it’s important to see a doctor so you can receive an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment promptly. Once you are diagnosed with RA, your doctor can monitor your disease to determine whether or how quickly it is progressing using a variety of tools and tests. These include tests that assess the objective elements of disease response, such as joint tenderness, and tests that measure non-objective elements, including questionnaires that ask patients to rate their pain and difficulty performing daily activities.