Are you living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? If so, you likely understand that treatment for a chronic condition like RA is an ongoing process that requires careful planning and consistent effort. 

But have you ever considered how your particular RA symptoms may progress over time? As the disease progresses, it goes through various stages. Understanding the four stages of RA will help you be better prepared and can make a real difference in your treatment plan.

Stage 1

Stage 1 is the earliest stage of this chronic inflammatory disease. Individuals may begin to experience mild joint pain or stiffness, often in the hands or feet. This pain is usually felt in the morning or after periods of inactivity and may improve with movement. Other symptoms may include fatigue and low-grade fever.

During Stage 1, X-rays and other imaging tests may not show significant signs of joint damage. However, blood tests may show elevated levels of certain antibodies, such as rheumatoid factor (RF) and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies, which indicate RA’s presence.

Stage 2

As RA advances to Stage 2, individuals may experience increased joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, which may affect mobility and range of motion. The affected joints may feel warm to the touch and appear red or inflamed.

At this time, X-rays and other imaging tests may show evidence of joint damage, including bone erosion, cartilage loss, and joint deformities. 

Stage 3

At stage 3, severe joint pain and stiffness can lead to loss of mobility. The affected joints may be very tender to the touch, and movement may be severely restricted. 

Stage 4

Stage 4 is the most advanced and severe stage of the disease. Severe joint pain, stiffness, and swelling can be debilitating.

Changes That May Occur as the Stages Progress

Everyone has their own unique experience with RA, but many experience the following symptoms:

  • Joints may become increasingly painful and stiff, making it difficult to perform daily activities.
  • As joint damage progresses, joints may become deformed or misaligned, leading to limited mobility and function.
  • Stiffness and swelling may limit the range of motion in affected joints, making it difficult to perform movements such as bending or reaching.
  • Small lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, may develop under the skin near the affected joints.
  • In rare cases, RA can lead to inflammation of the eyes, causing dryness, redness, and vision problems.
  • Long-standing RA can increase the risk of cardiovascular complications, such as heart attack and stroke.

As you progress through the stages, treatment may include corticosteroids, biologic agents, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

In addition, your treatment plan may include physical therapy exercises to help improve the range of motion and strength in affected joints and alternative treatments, such as massage therapy, that may help with symptom relief.

Finding The Treatment Plan That’s Right For You

Our staff at Advanced Rheumatology of Houston knows that, while there is no cure for RA, early intervention and treatment can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. If you’re experiencing joint pain or other symptoms, contact us to schedule an appointment by filling out our online form or calling (281) 766-7886. With proper treatment and management of RA symptoms throughout each stage, you can live an active life despite having this condition.