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Rheumatoid arthritis is a very common but poorly understood type of autoimmune disorder. Most people with the condition have relatively infrequent, mild bouts of fatigue, low fever, and joint pain and swelling. Occasionally, however, more severe rheumatoid arthritis complications can occur. Possible rheumatoid arthritis complications include lumpy nodules under the skin, eye irritation, anemia, and heart and lung problems. It is important for a person with the disorder to schedule regular checkups with a physician so complications can be detected and treated appropriately before they become major health problems.
Skin nodules and rashes are typically the most noticeable rheumatoid arthritis complications. Firm bumps may appear just underneath the skin on the fingers, feet, elbows, or elsewhere on the body. Nodules are usually painless and do not cause skin discoloration. They are rarely more than 1 inch (about 2.5 centimeters) in diameter. Mild itchy rashes or small, open skin lesions may develop as well due to inflammation and damage of blood vessels in the skin.
The eyes are prone to rheumatoid arthritis complications as well. The protective membrane called the sclera can become inflamed, causing the white of the eye to turn red. Pain, swelling, and excessive tearing are common when the sclera is damaged. A person may have blurred vision or light sensitivity as a result. In most cases, eye problems are temporary and subside when other symptoms of an acute rheumatoid arthritis attack resolve.
Anemia may develop when severe rheumatoid arthritis or the drugs used to treat it cause a drop in healthy red blood cells. Most cases of anemia are mild, and may be characterized by fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizzy spells. People with more serious cases might experience frequent muscle cramps, extreme tiredness, and bouts of lightheadedness and mental confusion.
Heart and lung rheumatoid arthritis complications are rare, but they can become serious if they are left untreated. Inflammation can affect the lining around the heart and lungs, leading to swelling, pain, and poor blood circulation. Heart tissue complications can cause a sudden rise or drop in heart rate and possibly result in anxiety, fainting, or in rare cases, heart attack. Lung involvement may cause shortness of breath and sleeping problems. It is also possible for irritated tissue to rupture and lead to a collapsed lung.
Any complications should be reported to a doctor so proper treatment decisions can be made. Special anti-inflammatory skin creams, eye drops, or oral drugs may be prescribed to combat active symptoms. Anemia and heart and lung problems can often be managed with prescription drugs as well. A physician also may need to adjust or change a patient's daily arthritis medications to help avoid complications in the future.
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