How Arthritis Affects the Body

Most people know that arthritis involves the joints, but fewer know that that isn’t the only part of the body affected. In fact, I’ve had people tell me, an arthritis patient, that it couldn’t possibly involve other parts of the body. They are extremely wrong! If you’re wondering how arthritis affects the body in places other than joints, then keep reading to see how it affects all sorts of other parts of the body.

Before I get into it, I want to make it explicitly clear that just because you have arthritis doesn’t mean these things will happen to you. Some of them only apply to one form of arthritis. Many things might apply to the form you have, but they are less likely to happen if you’re on a working treatment. And even if you’re not on a working treatment, that doesn’t mean that these things will happen to you. But these are ways that arthritis can affect the body, and knowledge is power.

As always, please remember that I am not a doctor or a medical professional. All factual information is sourced, and I try to make it extremely clear when I’m sharing my opinion.

I'm an arthritis patient, and something that surprises my friends and family is that it doesn't just affect my joints. In this blog post, I'm sharing how arthritis affects the body.

How Arthritis Affects the Body

Joints – I am starting with joints because it is the main area that people know are affected by arthritis. I mean, the word “arthritis,” when broken down to its roots, means inflammation (-itis) of the bones (arthrites) (x). But how arthritis affects joints depends on the type of arthritis. For example, osteoarthritis is when the cartilage of the joint breaks down (x). As the Arthritis Foundation says, “with inflammatory types of arthritis, the immune system doesn’t work properly and mistakenly attacks the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion” (x). Some inflammatory arthritis types are rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis. But those aren’t the only types of arthritis! There is also infectious arthritis, which is when “a bacterium, virus or fungus can enter the joint and trigger inflammation” (x). Sometimes, when the things that triggered the inflammation clear up, so does the arthritis. Other times, the patient is left with chronic pain (x). Finally, there is what’s called metabolic arthritis. This involves uric acid, which for some people doesn’t cause a problem. But “In some people, uric acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joint, resulting in sudden spikes of extreme joint pain, or a gout attack” (x).

What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Fatigue – I’ve put this before all the individual body parts because it doesn’t apply to individual areas. Fatigue isn’t “just” being tired; it’s “exhaustion that disrupts your daily life and doesn’t get better after a good night’s sleep” (x). Many arthritis patients experience fatigue, which can be caused by a variety of different things. One is just that being in constant pain is exhausting. Especially because chronic pain can affect your sleep, and if you’re like me, not getting enough sleep messes up your pain, and then you go in circles. Additionally, the Arthritis Foundation says that one cause of fatigue in inflammatory arthritis patients is in the inflammation itself: “The body undergoes stress as it tries to cope with the release of inflammatory cytokines (proteins) in the blood. That can cause fatigue, especially when disease activity is high or low-grade inflammation remains for a long time” (x).

There other factors in fatigue for arthritis patients. One is the medication you’re on. Some medications have the direct side effect of fatigue and others, like corticosteroids, make it harder for you to sleep (x). Another is that arthritis patients can get anemia. A fact that was shocking to me is that “Up to two-thirds of people with arthritis have a condition called anemia of chronic disease, which occurs when inflammatory chemicals interfere with the body’s production of red blood cells” (x). Two-thirds! That’s so many! (I, as I have talked about in the past, am one of these patients.)

Eyes – This mostly applies to people with inflammatory and/or autoimmune arthritis. The types that most affect the eyes are reactive arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and Sjogren’s syndrome (x). Ways that it can affect you go from dry eyes to possible vision loss, so make sure to pay attention to your eyes! Inflammatory arthritis can cause cataracts at any age, glaucoma, scleritis, and even conjunctivitis (x). Scleritis is inflammation of “connective tissue that makes up the outer wall of your eye” (x). As for vision loss, this is more common through uveitis, which is eye inflammation that “affects the middle layer of tissue in the eye wall” (x). This is mostly associated with psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. If you already see an eye doctor, make sure that they know you have an inflammatory and/or autoimmune form of arthritis; mine does, and she does extra checks for these sorts of things just to be safe.

My rheumatoid arthritis treatment and I how I got there

Mouth – The mouth in general can be affected by arthritis, but the gums specifically also can be affected by it. Dry mouth is a side effect of a lot of medications, and it’s also a symptom of Sjogren’s syndrome (x). As far as side effects/symptoms go, dry mouth doesn’t feel like a big issue. But when you have a dry mouth, it’s because you’re low on saliva, and “saliva contains antibacterial compounds that prevent tooth decay, gum disease and bad breath” (x). Additionally, if you have inflammatory arthritis, you have a higher risk of gum disease. In fact, “people with RA had eight times the odds of developing gum disease as compared with people without RA” (x). 8 times the chance! This makes is incredibly important to get to the dentist every 6 months. [Note: a lot of the articles I found focus on RA specifically, but since the qualifying factor causing gum disease according to them is chronic inflammation, it makes more sense to me to keep the descriptor open to inflammatory arthritis and not just rheumatoid.]

10 things I wish I knew when I received my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis

Lungs – There are several ways that inflammatory arthritis can affect the lungs. An actual disease that can be caused by arthritis is pleural disease, which is when the tissue around the lungs gets inflamed, usually leading to a build-up of fluid between the tissue (x). But causing other diseases is not the only way arthritis affects the lungs. Long-term inflammation can cause lung scarring and thickening of the lungs’ small airways, which is called small airway obstruction (x). Finally, rheumatoid arthritis can cause small lumps called rheumatoid nodules, which don’t mean lung cancer, but if one ruptures, it might collapse the lung it’s in (x).

Beginner’s guide: seronegative rheumatoid arthritis

Heart – For me personally, it’s the most concerning non-joint body part affected by inflammatory arthritis. Why? Because over 50% of deaths of RA patients are due to heart disease (x). Possible heart diseases/problems that we are at risk for include heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), high blood pressure, heart failure, and atherosclerosis (plaque in the arteries) (x). Cleveland Heart Lab says “people with rheumatoid arthritis have a 50 percent higher risk of experiencing a heart attack, twice the rate of heart failure and more peripheral vascular disease than those without the condition” (x). The problem is that inflammation “narrows the arteries, raising blood pressure and reducing blood flow to the heart” (x). And this isn’t just a concern for rheumatoid patients, although the Cleveland Heart Lab primarily discusses us; it’s a concern for all inflammatory patients. This includes osteoarthritis patients! As the Arthritis Foundation says, “Although OA is not in itself inflammatory, its damage can cause inflammation, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease” (x). Additionally, gout “was linked to a 15 percent higher risk for heart attack, stroke, or death from heart disease” in a 2018 study (x).

An additional concerning contributing factor for heart disease includes some medications taken for arthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, “have become notorious for increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke” (x). Another medication many of us patients are on, prednisone, is also risky. This can be confusing, because it works by lowering inflammation, but “prednisone can also raise blood pressure, increase cholesterol levels, and harden the arteries” (x).

So someone you know was diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis

GI system – GI stands for gastrointestinal, which is the system involved with eating and processing food. What’s the relation? Well, studies have shown that “people with RA are about 70 percent more likely to develop a gastrointestinal problem than people without RA” (x). Some problems are due to medication side effects; when I had an endoscopy in December 2018, they found several near-ulcers in my esophagus as a result of long-term NSAID and prednisone use. (They took care of them, so don’t worry.) But another possible cause is an additional disease. Research has found that “nearly five percent of people with RA have another autoimmune disease. Common coexisting disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), autoimmune hepatitis and celiac disease, directly affect the GI tract” (x) and that patients with fibromyalgia also get IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome (x) – by the way, IBD and IBS are different, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Areas of the body affected by arthritis other than joints Click To Tweet

Liver – This is another situation where some ways arthritis affects the liver are due to the type of arthritis and some are as a result of medications, which is why patients aren’t supposed to drink alcohol while on some of those medications. Creaky Joints explains in this post that “Studies have linked certain types of inflammatory arthritis with a greater risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease” (x). The type that puts you most at risk? Psoriatic arthritis (x).

Chronically ill tips: what to do when a doctor isn’t listening to you

Kidneys – Again, if you have inflammatory arthritis, you might be in danger of kidney problems due to your arthritis or your medications. In 2014, researchers found that “Over 20 years, the rheumatoid arthritis patients had a 25 percent risk of developing chronic kidney disease, compared with a 20 percent risk for those in the general population” (x). WebMd explains that risk factors for RA patients include inflammation as well as use of medications like corticosteroids (x). In fact, many RA patients like myself frequently get blood tests to monitor the liver and kidneys.

How is chronic pain different from acute pain?

Skin – If you have psoriatic arthritis, you read that this was the last topic and went “Well, duh, of course skin is affected.” That’s because psoriatic arthritis patients are very familiar with psoriasis, which is an autoimmune disease all on its own. Additionally, a hallmark of lupus is a rash across the face. But those aren’t the only ways that arthritis affects skin. Photosensitivity – or when you are easily sunburned or you get a rash or hives when in the sun – is a side effect of many arthritis medications, as well as a lupus symptom (x). Additionally, watch out for multiple sores or purple spots on your legs. “Sores or purplish lesions on the skin, particularly on the lower extremities, could signal vasculitis. Vasculitis is inflammation of the blood vessels,” the Arthritis Foundation explains (x). Finally, if you’re like me, you bruise really easily. This can be a side effect of medications or a symptom of chronic anemia (x).

What are some other areas of the body that are affected by your arthritis?

Like this post? Check out:

Beginner’s Guide: Infusion for Arthritis, Arthritis Glossary: Frequently-Used Words, The Lifestyle Changes I Made for My Rheumatoid Arthritis, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life

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  • Reply sarah

    Thank you for all the research that goes into your thoughtful and well-composed articles.

    January 24, 2020 at 9:48 am
  • Reply Natasha

    Wow! This was super interesting, I had no idea the impact Arthritis could have on your body other than your joints. Do you have an recommendations to prevent arthritis?

    January 24, 2020 at 5:57 pm
  • Reply Lydia

    I had no idea that arthritis affects so many different parts of the body. Wow!

    February 24, 2020 at 10:19 am
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