Is rheumatoid arthritis fatal?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune inflammatory disease in which the immune system starts attacking its own healthy cells. The main areas attacked are joints and tissues. Autoimmunity causes inflammation in the lining of joints and the tissue is damaged. It results in swelling, stiffness, immense pain and immobility of the joint. Millions of people suffer from rheumatoid arthritis all over the world and many people question; is it fatal? Can it cause death?

The answer is a bit complicated. Rheumatoid arthritis itself is not fatal. But the complications caused by it can have life-threatening consequences. People with rheumatoid arthritis are prone to other diseases as well. That’s why rheumatoid arthritis is not fatal in itself, certainly affects the lifestyle of the patient and reduces life span by 10-15 years.

Here is the list of life-threatening consequences caused by rheumatoid arthritis:

Ø  Cardiac problems:

  • Inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis causes the narrowing of arteries and blood vessels which affects the blood pressure. It creates higher chances of heart attack.
  •  Pericarditis is the inflammation of the outer membrane pericardium of the heart. Pericarditis is more likely to occur in rheumatoid patients.
  • Inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis makes up plaques of lipids in blood vessels. This makes the vessels thick and prevents the easy flow of blood. This condition is called atherosclerosis.
  • The plaque formed in atherosclerosis can detach itself from the vessels and travel with your blood. This plaque now called embolus can also cause strokes. The chances of stroke are double in rheumatoid arthritis patients as compared to other people.
  • People with rheumatoid arthritis are at three times higher risk of three vein thrombosis which causes clots in legs.

Ø  Respiratory problems:

  •  People suffering from rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to get pleural effusion. The inflammation causes fluid to fill the space between the pleural membranes as well as between lungs and chest cavity and makes it nearly impossible to breathe.
  • 10% of rheumatoid arthritis patients develop interstitial lung disease. It is the consequence of over inflammation caused by the auto immunity which causes scars inside the lungs. Deep scars can even bleed and it becomes difficult to breathe. End treatment of this disease is lung transplant.
  •  Rheumatoid arthritis patients can develop small packages from inflamed areas that could block the air passageways and cause impaired breathing.

Ø  Other infections and diseases:

Rheumatoid arthritis is also responsible for several other kinds of diseases and infections

  • Rheumatoid vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
  •  Osteoporosis (demineralization of bones making them porous)
  • Eye inflammation
  •  Anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen)
  • Diabetes type 2
  • Aggravates asthma

Factors determining the extent of complications:

The extent to which these complications arise in a rheumatoid arthritis patient varies from person to person. The different factors that determine the extent of these complications are:

Ø  Progression of disease:

How far the arthritis has progressed determines how serious complications it can cause. If rheumatoid arthritis has been diagnosed at an early stage, and the treatment and medication are started at the right time, it can not cause very serious complications. But if left unchecked and let it proliferate all the tissues, it could cause fatal consequences.

Ø  Age:

Age is also a contributing factor in the complications of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis in old age is more serious as the body is not strong enough to fight the auto immune responses and causes much more serious complications.

Ø  Sex/gender:

Females are more likely to have rheumatoid arthritis than men. However, men with rheumatoid arthritis have greater chances to develop cardiovascular diseases.

Ø  Genetics:

Genetics play an important role in the initiation of rheumatoid arthritis. As the specific genes trigger the autoimmune response more rapidly than others, this disease runs in families.

Ø  Lifestyles:

Lifestyle of an individual affects the complications caused by arthritis as well. People who drink and smoke have higher risks of inflammation and corresponding diseases. People who over exercise in arthritis can also develop several complications.


As we have discussed, rheumatoid arthritis is itself not fatal, but it is responsible for many fatal diseases. It is advised to get it diagnosed and start treatment as early as possible to keep yourself healthy.

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