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What are the short-term and long-term effects of arthritis?

If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis can cause a number of short-term complications, particularly joint pain, Pisetsky says. And because RA affects the entire body, without treatment you may also experience general malaise, fever, and fatigue.

Untreated rheumatoid arthritis can also increase the risk for infection, Pisetsky says. Because RA is an autoimmune disease, the immune system concentrates on attacking your joints, not protecting you from illness. In one study, published in Arthritis and Rheumatology in 2012 and involving 584 people with rheumatoid arthritis, about 43 percent developed one or more serious infections.

If rheumatoid arthritis is left untreated in the long-term, it’s not an exaggeration to say that your life could be at risk as well. “Persistent inflammation can lead to a shorter lifespan,” Pisetsky says. RA can increase the risk for heart disease, because inflammation not only affects the joints but also the heart. Uncontrolled inflammation from untreated rheumatoid arthritis can narrow blood vessels, according to the Arthritis Foundation, allowing plaque to build up.

People with rheumatoid arthritis are about twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease as is the general population, according to a study published in 2013 in the American Heart Journal. And the more advanced your RA, the greater your risk for heart damage, notes the American College of Rheumatology.

However, regular treatment that slows the progression of your RA can protect your joints, your heart, your overall health and well-being — and your life.