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First Description-Rheumatoid Vasculitis (RV) is an unusual complication of longstanding, severe rheumatoid arthritis. The active vasculitis associated with rheumatoid disease occurs in about 1% of this patient population.RV is a manifestation of “extra-articular” (beyond the joint)rheumatoid arthritis and involves the small and medium-sized arteries in the body. In many of its disease features, RV resembles polyarteritis nodosa.Other common extra-articular manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis, such as inflammation in the sac surrounding the heart (pericarditis), inflammation in the lining of the lungs (pleuritis), and interstitial lung disease (resulting in fibrosis or scarring of the lungs).
Who gets Rheumatoid Vasculitis? A typical patient.RV can affect a person from any ethnic background, either gender, and from any age group. However, more often than not, the typical patient has long-standing rheumatoid arthritis with severe joint deformities from the underlying arthritis. Although the arthritis has usually led to significant joint damage, at the onset of RV the joint disease is paradoxically quiet.

Figure: Patient with joint damage from rheumatoid arthritis. Note the bulbous swelling of some knuckles and lateral (ulnar) deviation of the fingers.Classic symptoms of Rheumatoid Vasculitis,RV has many potential signs and symptoms. The manifestations of RV can involve many of the body’s different organ systems, including but not limited to the skin, peripheral nervous system (nerves to the hands and feet) , arteries of the fingers and toes causing digital ischemia, and eyes with scleritis. Scleritis (inflammation of the white part of the eye) commonly occurs in the setting of RV. This ocular complication requires urgent treatment with mmunosuppressive medications.Figure: Digital ischemia – this image shows a blood flow deficiency in the tip of the finger caused by an obstruction of the digital artery.Figure: Scleritis – Inflammation of the sclera (the white of the eye) causing redness, light sensitivity and pain.In addition, generalized symptoms such as fever and weight loss are common.As is true with other forms of vasculitis that involve the skin, cutaneous lesions can erupt on various areas of the body in RV, with a predilection for the lower extremities. Typical findings include ulcers concentrated near the ankles.Figure: Cutaneous ulcer – an open skin sore caused by an obstruction of the small blood vessels in the superficial ulcers or obstruction of medium vessels in a deeper ulcer.

Small nail fold infarcts (small spots around fingernail) can occur in rheumatoid arthritisbut these do not necessarily signify the presence of systemic vasculitis and do not necessitate a change in rheumatoid arthritis treatment.Nerve damage can cause foot or wrist drop, known in medical terminology as “mononeuritis multiplex”. The images below show a patient with a right wrist drop and a patient with right foot drop. This condition, which may be significantly disabling, is often preceded by a change in sensation in the same area (numbness, tingling, burning, or pain). These abnormal sensations can progress to muscle weakness, focal paralysis, and eventually to muscle wasting. Recovery from this condition, caused by nerve infarction, can take months. In some cases, recoveries from mononeuritis multiplex are incomplete.

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