Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes a person’s immune system to mistakenly attack its own body tissues resulting in pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints. It usually affects the hands, feet, and wrists. RA has the potential to cause systemic inflammation affecting the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels.
The exact cause of RA is unknown, but researchers believe it to be associated with genetics, hormones, or environmental factors. Triggers of the condition are also unclear, but persons at increased risk are women, those with a family history of RA, and smokers.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Tender, warm, and swollen joints
- Nodules under the skin or on organs
- Decreased range of motion
- Stiffness, especially in the mornings or after long periods of inactivity
- Low-grade fever
RA is characterized by periods of flares and remissions. They may be difficult to predict, but flares can be kept to a minimum with proper treatment, and long-term damage to the joints can be prevented or lessened.
Specific blood tests such as anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) and rheumatoid factor test can help detect antibodies present with RA. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein are often elevated when the disease is active. X-rays can track disease progression, and MRI scans can assess severity.
RA is often managed by a specialist called a rheumatologist. Nurses can support adherence and disease management by educating patients on their medications, pain control, and preventing systemic complications.
Nursing Care Plans Related to Rheumatoid Arthritis
Tissues become inflamed, causing damage to joints and chronic pain and stiffness in patients who have RA.
Nursing Diagnosis: Chronic Pain
- Joint damage
As evidenced by:
- Verbalization of pain
- Guarding behavior
- Erythema and swelling of the joints
- Decreased range of motion
- Patient will verbalize relief or control of pain.
- Patient will be able to participate in activities and perform self-care.
- Patient will verbalize two strategies to control pain.
1. Assess the location of the pain.
The primary complaint of patients suffering from RA is chronic pain and stiffness of the joints. Nurses can keep track of tender and swollen joints using a Disease Activity Score calculator.
2. Assess the effects of pain on activities and ADLs.
Assess when the pain and stiffness occurs and if it interferes with the patient’s ability to perform ADLs, hobbies, and exercise.
1. Recommend firm mattresses and supportive pillows.
Soft sagging mattresses and soft pillows prevent the maintenance of proper body alignment, placing further stress on the affected joints and preventing restful sleep.
2. Consider alternative therapies.
Massage, acupuncture, meditation, and more can help reduce cortisol levels, the stress hormone, which in turn reduces inflammation.
3. Recommend warm, moist heat.
Heat promotes muscle relaxation and mobility, decreases pain, and relieves morning stiffness. Methods such as using paraffin gloves and whirlpool baths will provide sustained heat to reduce pain and improve the range of motion (ROM) of affected joints.
4. Administer medications appropriately.
NSAIDs are given to reduce inflammation and ease pain. Diclofenac, a common topical NSAID, can be applied directly to the joints. Steroids may be prescribed during flares to reduce inflammation and to slow joint damage.
5. Ensure adherence to a DMARD.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are used to treat RA and slow disease progression. These drugs reduce systemic inflammation and the incidence of flares.
Impaired Physical Mobility
Rheumatoid arthritis may cause deformities in the affected joints, making movement difficult. The joints most often affected by RA are in the fingers, hands, wrists, ankles, feet, knees, shoulders, and elbows.
Nursing Diagnosis: Impaired Physical Mobility
- Skeletal deformity
- Intolerance to activity
- Decreased muscle strength
As evidenced by:
- Reluctance to attempt movement
- Limited ROM
- Stiffness and pain
- Slow, uncoordinated ambulation
- Use of assistive devices
- Patient will maintain or increase the strength and function of the affected joints.
- Patient will participate in recommended physical therapy.
- Patient will maintain joint function with the absence of contractures.
1. Assess and monitor the degree of joint inflammation.
The activity or exercise level depends on the inflammatory process’s progression or resolution.
3. Assess ROM of joints.
This assessment provides baseline data and monitoring of the effectiveness of the plan of care.
1. Cluster care and promote rest.
Clustering related tasks instead of spacing them out over time will allow the patient to have longer periods of rest. As fatigue is common in RA, adequate rest is important.
2. Encourage exercise.
Exercising maintains and improves joint function, muscle strength, and stamina. Inadequate exercise leads to joint stiffening and poor bone health. If exercise is painful, assist the patient with ROM exercises.
3. Encourage the patient to maintain proper posture.
Keeping an upright posture with proper joint alignment can help prevent contractures and maintain mobility.
4. Delegate tasks.
Some tasks, such as cleaning the house or maintaining the yard, may become too painful or unsafe. The patient may need to delegate or hire others to perform tasks.
5. Recommend PT/OT.
Physical therapy can prolong mobility and strength through appropriate exercise. Occupational therapists can provide tools like eating utensils or toothbrushes with larger grips to aid in the patient’s performance of tasks independently.
Disturbed Body Image
Patients who suffer from RA will experience swelling, changes in the shape of their hands and feet, weight gain or loss, and walking difficulties. These physical changes may affect their self-esteem.
Nursing Diagnosis: Disturbed Body Image
- Inability to perform usual tasks
- Impaired mobility
- Altered self-image perception
As evidenced by:
- Joint deformities
- RA nodules
- Negative self-talk
- Change in lifestyle and ability to perform roles
- Withdrawal from social involvement
- Attempt to hide body parts
- Sense of isolation
- Patient will verbalize acceptance of joint deformities.
- Patient will formulate realistic plans for the future.
- Patient will demonstrate positive lifestyle changes.
1. Note withdrawn behavior, denial, or over-concern with body changes.
These behaviors may suggest emotional exhaustion or maladaptive coping methods, requiring more in-depth intervention or psychological support.
2. Assess how the patient views themselves in their usual lifestyle functionality.
Identifying how the illness affects their self-perception and interactions with others will determine the need for further intervention and counseling.
1. Encourage verbalization of concerns about the disease process and future expectations.
Listening to the patient’s concerns regarding their experiences with the illness and what they expect to happen in the future will provide an opportunity to identify fears and misconceptions so that they may be addressed appropriately.
2. Acknowledge their feelings of grief, anger, or loss.
Constant pain is wearing, and feelings of anger, irritability, and resentment are common. Listen and let the patient express their thoughts without fear of judgment.
3. Involve the patient in planning their care and in scheduling their activities.
Involving the patient in the treatment process will enhance feelings of competency and self-worth, encouraging independence and participation in therapy.
4. Give positive reinforcement for accomplishments.
Providing positive feedback will allow the patient to feel good about themselves, reinforce positive behavior, and enhance self-confidence.
5. Refer to counseling or support groups as needed.
Counseling professionals such as psychiatric clinical nurse specialists, psychologists, or support groups may be needed for ongoing support to deal with any feelings of loss or difficulty coping with a chronic disease.
6. Recommend treatment for RA nodules.
RA nodules usually aren’t painful but may be a source of embarrassment for the patient. Steroid injections or surgery can shrink or remove them, though they will often come back.
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- Rheumatoid arthritis. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/. Accessed on Dec. 31, 2022
- Doenges, M. E., Moorhouse, M. F. (1993). Nurses’s Pocket Guide: Nursing Diagnoses with Interventions (4th Ed.). F.A. Davis Company.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4924-rheumatoid-arthritis. Accessed on Dec. 31, 2022
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and More. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/rheumatoid-arthritis. Accessed on Dec. 31, 2022