Have you ever woken up super stiff and achy? Fatigue that made you want to lie in bed all day? Pain that echoes with every step you took? You could have rheumatoid arthritis, or RA.
RA is an autoimmune disease that affects about 1.5 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
While RA is most common in women and middle-aged people, adolescents and men can also get RA as well. RA can be a particularly difficult disease to diagnose because the hallmark symptoms — stiffness, pain, and fatigue — are often confused with other conditions, and there’s no one way to test for it. Your doctor will likely order a blood tests and an imaging tests and he or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
But of course, the main way to tell if you have RA is to see if you have the symptoms for it. Here are some of the most common ways RA shows up in your body.
In its early stages, RA typically affects small joints, like the ones in your fingers, hands, toes, and feet. As it progresses, it can spread to larger joints, such as ones that attach to your wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders.
Feeling a sense of stiffness is a super common RA symptom, and is usually worse in the morning upon waking up, or after a period of being sedentary (e.g., after a long Netflix binge).
Don’t be alarmed if you notice swelling before anyone else—typically someone with RA can sense it, even though it might not be visible to the eye. Swelling can become so painful that it can cause joint deformity or bone erosion.
It could get so bad that you might notice over time that you’re not able to do simple daily tasks that you once did—such as opening a can, texting on a phone, or – if the RA is in your knees – climbing the stairs.
We’re all tired from time to time of course, but the fatigue for people with RA is on another level. However, if you’re able to get the condition under control, your fatigue will dissipate as well.
Many people with RA experience problems remembering certain things – say, what to buy at the grocery store – have difficulty thinking clearly, or even trouble concentrating.
Nodules, or growths of abnormal tissue, sometimes can develop on the skin. The good news is, these lumps aren’t harmful, but they can be pretty frustrating, and sometimes they’re painful.
Muscle mass and muscle density were severely affected in people with RA compared to healthy individuals in a study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
Because you’re so fatigued and drained, you might actually feel like you’re coming down with the flu or another bug, and just have that general sense of feeling crummy.
Depression is 2-4 times more common in people with RA than those who don’t have the condition, according to a study published in the International Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, and usually occurs early on in the condition.
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For example, those with RA can commonly develop Sjogren’s syndrome, which affects your moisture glands. If you get Sjogren’s, you might notice severe eye or mouth irritation.
While there’s no cure for RA, there are lots of daily lifestyle changes you can make to help you feel better and live life to the fullest. Using ergonomic tools (e.g., a reacher to reach things on top shelves instead of straining your back) can help. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and applying hot or cold compresses to your achy joints are all just little things you can do to find relief.
Additionally, your doctor may recommend a medication, physical or occupational therapy, or surgery depending on the severity of your RA.
Do you or someone you know have RA? What did you or they do to feel better?