5 Potential Complications of Untreated Rheumatoid Arthritis

By Karina Lichtenstein

Reviewed by William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Untreated rheumatoid arthritis can have serious consequences. Avoid these five potential complications by diagnosing and treating rheumatoid arthritis early and monitoring with your doctor regularly!

  1. Joint destruction and deformity: In rheumatoid arthritis, the body's immune system attacks the joint lining (synovium), leading to cartilage and bone damage. If untreated, chronic joint inflammation can lead to permanent joint damage and deformity. See pictures of joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis in this slideshow.
  2. Loss of function and disability: Rheumatoid joint inflammation affects tissues surrounding the joint, including tendons, ligaments, and muscles that stabilize joints. This weakens the joints and can lead to a loss of function and disability. Read about the prognosis for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
  3. Osteoporosis: People who have rheumatoid arthritis are at increased risk for the bone-thinning condition, osteoporosis. Bone loss associated with the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis is one cause for this increased risk. Joint damage and disability may also contribute to inactivity, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Moreover, corticosteroids that are used to treat rheumatoid inflammation can also promote bone loss. Learn about other risk factors and causes of osteoporosis.
  4. Coronary artery disease: People who have rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries to the heart) compared to those who don't have rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation is associated with both rheumatoid arthritis and coronary artery disease. Researchers suspect that inflammation related to rheumatoid arthritis triggers the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Read about more risk factors for coronary artery disease in this article.
  5. Anemia: Many people who have rheumatoid arthritis may also have anemia, a condition in which the body lacks enough red blood cells. Red blood cells are needed to deliver oxygen to the body tissues. Anemia often causes fatigue and other symptoms. The inflammation of chronic rheumatoid arthritis decreases the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow leading to anemia. Learn about more causes of anemia.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/1/2014