When you think of arthritis, you probably think of joint pain. For people with rheumatoid arthritis, complications of the disease can move beyond the joints and may affect the nervous system.
RA is a type of arthritis that develops when the immune system attacks the tissue that helps to support joints and to prevent bones from rubbing together. It is a chronic condition that worsens over time, and primarily attacks the joints in the body that allow for movement.
A neurological disorder is a condition that affects the body’s nervous system. RA can result in a variety of neurological complications, some of which can be life-threatening.
RA can affect the peripheral nerves that allow sensations such as temperature and pressure. This is more common in the feet and legs than in the hands, but can occur anywhere on the body.
Damage to the sensory nerves can limit sensation which is sometimes described as feeling like a person is wearing socks or mittens even when the hands or feet are bare. Damage can also result in increased sensitivity or pain in affected areas.
Inflammation and swelling caused by RA can pinch nerves that travel through narrow spaces such as tunnels through a bone. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common example of an entrapment neuropathy.
Cervical spine issues
The cervical spine is the top portion of the spine closest to the head. RA often attacks the joints between the vertebrae in this part of the spine. When vertebrae are pushed out of alignment by RA, the bones can push on the spinal cord.
Spinal cord compression can cause neck pain, headaches and other issues, including difficulty walking and loss of bladder or bowel control. Severe compression of the spinal cord can be fatal. Surgery may be possible to help stabilize the spine and reduce these symptoms.
RA affects each person differently. If you have questions about rheumatoid arthritis or pain caused by RA, talk to your health care provider.
Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. Rheumatoid Arthritis Signs and Symptoms. Victoria Ruffing, RN, CCRP and Clifton O. Bingham III, MD. Web. August 13, 2015.
QJM. Neurological involvement in patients with rheumatic disease. N. Sofat, O. Malik and C. S. Higgens. Web. August 13, 2015.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis. Web. August 13, 2015.
Center for Neuro and Spine. Rheumatoid Arthritis of the Cervical Spine. Web. August 13, 2015.
Reviewed August 14, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
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