How Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes Numbness and Tingling

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease that mainly affects the joints. In rare cases, joint inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis can spread to surrounding nerves, leading to nerve damage and numbness and tingling sensations.

Symptoms like numbness and tingling shouldn't be ignored as these are signs of a disease complication or that your rheumatoid arthritis is worsening.

This article discusses the connection between rheumatoid arthritis and numbness and tingling and how to find relief.

Woman massaging painful wrist

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How Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes Numbness and Tingling

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory, autoimmune condition that causes the body to create antibodies that attack healthy joints. This results in joint pain, inflammation, and swelling that affect the joints and surrounding ligaments and nerves.

When the inflammation of joints from rheumatoid arthritis affects nearby nerves, it can lead to nerve damage or compression that can result in symptoms of numbness and tingling.

Neuropathy

Neuropathy is nerve damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves, affecting how nerve cells can communicate with each other and the brain. It can result in physical symptoms like numbness and tingling in the affected areas.

Over time, cartilage breaks down, narrowing the space between bones, and joints can become unstable or stiff. In addition, the ligaments that connect bones to support joints also become inflamed, causing them to become lax and less able to provide support to the joints. This can cause joints to shift out of proper alignment.

If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent and irreversible joint damage.

Because of these inflammatory changes to joints and surrounding structures, several other conditions that affect parts of the nervous system are often linked with rheumatoid arthritis.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve that passes through the wrist from the arm to the hand becomes compressed, resulting in numbness, tingling, and weakness in the fingers. The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel that's formed from the carpal bones of the wrist and finger flexor tendons.

Because rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects the wrists, causing bone destruction and ligament laxity, the height of the carpal tunnel often becomes narrowed, causing increased pressure on the median nerve within the carpal tunnel.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy results from damage to the peripheral nervous system that is made up of the many nerves of the body, including those of the arms and legs, that send signals to and from the brain and spinal cord.

Peripheral nerves transmit both sensory information, such as feelings of pressure, pain, and temperature, and motor function information to contract and relax muscles. The hands and feet are most commonly affected by peripheral neuropathy.

A small study investigating peripheral neuropathy in people with rheumatoid arthritis suggests that peripheral neuropathy can occur in up to one-third of people with the autoimmune condition and that the risk increases with age.

There are multiple causes of peripheral neuropathy that can result in nerve pain in the hands and feet in people with rheumatoid arthritis. These include:

Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune condition that commonly coincides with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions.

With Sjögren's syndrome, the glands that produce saliva and tears become inflamed, leading to dry mouth and dry eyes.

Sjögren's syndrome can also affect the nerves of the face and tongue, causing pain, numbness, and tingling. Numbness or tingling may also occur in the hands or feet.

Raynaud’s Disease

Raynaud’s disease is a condition characterized by abnormal sensitivity to cold due to constriction of blood vessels in the fingers and toes. This will cause your fingers or toes to turn pale and result in other symptoms like pain, numbness, tingling, and throbbing.

Raynaud’s disease often occurs secondary to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus.

Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic neuropathy occurs with damage to the nerves that control your internal organs.

While the exact cause underlying autonomic neuropathy in rheumatoid arthritis isn't fully known, circulating autoantibodies and increased inflammatory proteins are thought to damage the vagus nerve.

Autonomic neuropathy can cause paresthesia, or a burning or prickling feeling in the limbs, as well as numbness and tingling.

Spinal Cord Compression

Rheumatoid arthritis of the spine can cause inflammation and joint space narrowing within the spinal vertebrae, which can lead to spinal cord compression and result in nerve pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling.

If compression occurs in the cervical spine of the neck, symptoms are usually experienced in the arms, while if compression occurs in the lumbar spine of the low back, symptoms often occur in the legs. 

Rheumatoid Vasculitis

Rheumatoid vasculitis is a complication of rheumatoid arthritis that causes inflammation of the blood vessels that supply the skin, nerves, and internal organs.

Rheumatoid vasculitis can cause painful rashes and ulcers on the skin as well as nerve damage, resulting in loss of sensation, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet.

What This Feels Like and How to Relieve It

Symptoms of numbness and tingling in rheumatoid arthritis can vary based on the extent of damage or compression to nerves. However, symptoms most commonly occur in the hands, feet, and limbs and include the following:

  • Numbness 
  • Pins and needles
  • Tingling 
  • Burning sensation
  • Prickling feeling in the skin
  • Muscle weakness
  • Skin sensitivity

Where Do Symptoms Occur?

Symptoms most commonly occur in the hands, feet, and limbs.

How to Relieve Rheumatoid Arthritis Numbness and Tingling

Regular physical activity and stretching can help improve joint mobility, increase flexibility, and decrease nerve compression to help treat numbness and tingling.

Specific muscles to focus on stretching to relieve muscle tightness and potential nerve compression include:

Additionally, nerve glides, also called nerve flossing, can help decrease nerve tension and improve the mobility of nerves to help reduce compression. Nerve flossing can be used to target the following nerves:

Treatment, Outlook, Prevention

Treatment for numbness and tingling from rheumatoid arthritis depends on managing the underlying cause of nerve compression, rheumatoid arthritis in general, and any other comorbidity.

Treatments for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome involves decreasing inflammation in the wrist joint and forearm tendons, including:

  • Wrist braces to support the wrist joint and decrease compression of the median nerve
  • Steroid injections into the wrist to decrease local inflammation
  • Resting in between repetitive motions of the wrists, hands, and fingers
  • Application of cold packs to the wrists to decrease pain, inflammation, and swelling
  • Wrist and forearm stretches and physical or occupational therapy to relieve nerve compression and restore strength and flexibility balances in the hand, wrist, and forearm 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation

Treatments for Neuropathy

Treating peripheral neuropathy can depend on its underlying cause. Other times, treatment focuses on managing symptoms. Options for managing peripheral neuropathy include:

Treatments for Raynaud’s Disease

Raynaud’s disease is best managed by avoiding triggers and treating underlying causes:

  • Seek medical advice regarding primary causes, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and get appropriate treatment.
  • Avoid cold, wet climates and weather.
  • Wear warm socks and gloves in cold temperatures.
  • Use warm compresses to increase circulation and decrease cold sensitivity, pain, tingling, and numbness.

Treatments for Sjögren's Syndrome

While there is no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, available treatments can help manage symptoms:

  • Eye drops and gels, lozenges, or sprays can help moisten your eyes and mouth
  • NSAIDs to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs to decrease inflammation

Outlook and Prevention

Because the exact cause of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis remains unknown, it can be difficult to determine how to prevent the condition. Healthy lifestyle habits that reduce inflammation throughout the body can help prevent your risk of developing autoimmune conditions or slow disease progression if you're diagnosed. As a result, you'll have a lower chance of developing numbness and tingling.

Healthy Habits for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Healthy habits that can help decrease inflammation throughout your body include regular exercise, following an anti-inflammatory diet, coping and managing stress effectively, and having adequate social support from friends and family members.

Summary

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. In rare cases, inflammation of joints from rheumatoid arthritis affects nearby nerves, leading to nerve damage or compression that can result in symptoms of numbness and tingling.

Regular physical activity and stretching can help improve joint mobility, increase flexibility, and decrease nerve compression to help treat numbness and tingling. Other healthy habits like following an anti-inflammatory diet and managing stress effectively can help reduce inflammation in the body.

Treatment for numbness and tingling from rheumatoid arthritis is reliant on managing the underlying cause of nerve compression. It can include physical therapy, OTC treatments, and prescription medication, to name a few.

A Word From Verywell

Numbness and tingling are uncommon symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and are often indicators of a complication or disease progression. Inflammation from joints can extend to surrounding nerves, causing damage and uncomfortable symptoms like numbness and tingling.

Prevention is key to decreasing the likelihood of developing numbness and tingling from rheumatoid arthritis. Make sure you stay on top of your medical management and follow healthy lifestyle habits to decrease widespread inflammation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does rheumatoid arthritis cause pins and needles?

    Rheumatoid arthritis can cause pins and needles sensations if joint inflammation spreads to surrounding nerves, causing nerve compression, damage, and inflammation.

  • Can you get neuropathy from rheumatoid arthritis?

    Because inflammation and joint damage from rheumatoid arthritis can progress to nerve damage, neuropathy can develop from rheumatoid arthritis. Neuropathy can also develop as a negative side effect of certain drugs like tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors used to decrease inflammation in autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

  • What does rheumatoid arthritis feel like in feet?

    Rheumatoid arthritis can cause feelings of pain, stiffness, and swelling in the feet if the foot and ankle joints are affected. If you develop peripheral neuropathy with rheumatoid arthritis, you may also feel pain, tingling, numbness, burning, and pins and needles sensations.

  • How do you tell if you have rheumatoid arthritis in your hands?

    A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is made based on a combination of X-rays and bloodwork to check for elevated levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Other than symptoms of joint pain, stiffness, and swelling in the finger joints, rheumatoid arthritis may also cause visual joint deformities including boutonniere deformities, swan neck deformities, and ulnar deviation.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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