How Rheumatoid Arthritis Can Affect the Eyes

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition affecting over 1.3 Americans that can cause joint pain and damage throughout the body. RA affects more women than men. Patients often complain of joint stiffness, fever, weight loss, and malaise, and have inflammatory polyarthritis. Because RA is an autoimmune condition, it can affect all the systems of the body, including the ocular system. Furthermore, some of the medications used to treat RA, can cause eye conditions. For example, Plaquenil can rarely cause retinopathy, and prednisone can cause or worsen cataracts or glaucoma. The following is a brief examination of a few of the conditions that can result from RA or its treatment. 

RA and Dry Eye Disease 

The most common eye disorder affecting patients with RA is dry eye syndrome, which is also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca. It may result from dysfunction in various of the glands in the eye or goblet cell dysfunction. With dry eye, patients feel like they have something in their eye. Their eyes may burn, be sensitive to light, and in fact patients’ vision can be impacted. Up to 25% of patients with RA have an associated condition called Sjogren syndrome. Like with other autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks its own body, in this case the glands that make tears and saliva. In addition to dry eyes and dry mouth, Sjogren’s can come with fatigue and joint and muscle pain. Dry eye can be problematic in addition to causing discomfort because it makes injury and infection more likely in the absence of tears to protect the eye. RA dry eye is generally treated with eyedrops and ointments, topical steroids, and oral pilocarpine. In 2016, the FDA approved a new drug for the treatment of dry eye disease. Read further about how amniotic eye transplants can help with severe chronic dry eye

RA and episcleritis 

RA can also lead to episcleritis, which is an inflammation of the clear layer on top of the sclera (the white of the eye). It affects both eyes 40% of the time, causing pink eyes and pain. Doctors will prescribe topical corticosteroids or NSAIDs for the symptoms. There are two slightly different forms of episcleritis, simple, which ap pears as redness without much discomfort, and nodular, where the redness is more localized and there are raised bumps surrounded by dilated blood vessels. This latter form might be uncomfortable. Both forms can cause tearing, photosensitivity, and a hot, gritty sensation in the eye. The vision is not usually impacted, and the condition may resolve on its own, or resolve and return. 

RA and Scleritis 

Scleritis is inflammation of the sclera, the white part of the eye. RA is the most common cause of scleritis and may be a symptom that indicates to patients that they have RA because scleritis often begin before other symptoms of RA. In 40-50% of the time, it occurs in both eyes. There are a few kinds of scleritis: – Anterior: causes intense pain especially with eye movements, blurry vision, light sensitivity, and tearing. – Scleromalacia perforans: appears without inflammation. This condition is usually not painful but can lead to vision loss including astigmatism, and globe perforation. – Posterior scleritis: can cause serious retinal detachment or chorioretinal folds. Topical medications for scleritis generally won’t work, and doctor and patient must manage the RA. Scleritis can cause serious vision impairment and is associated with increased mortality of RA patients.


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