Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that primarily affects the joints. An estimated 1.5 million people in the United States are diagnosed with RA and women are at a higher risk than men.
Like many autoimmune diseases, RA can take years to get diagnosed, so identifying the early signs of RA is critical. As RA progresses, it can cause permanent joint deformities, and it can even cause damage in other parts of the body, beyond the joints (like the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels).
People who recognize the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis and get diagnosed in the initial stages of disease progression can start treatment interventions sooner, may be diagnosed at an earlier stage, and tend to have better health outcomes.
What are the Early Signs of RA?
Knowing that an early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is correlated with more successful health outcomes, recognizing the early signs is a vital first step. Research by the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) shows that, on average, it takes 4.6 years for someone to get diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, with RA diagnosis taking a likely range of 3-7 years.
The road for people with RA to receive a diagnosis can be long and challenging, so the better you can document and describe your symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, the sooner you can talk with your doctor and get help.
In addition to being aware of the specific personal risk factors for RA, here are five early signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis that you can be on the lookout for:
- Joint warmth and redness
- Joint pain and swelling
- Morning joint stiffness
- Symptoms that come and go
Joint Warmth and Redness
One very early sign of Rheumatoid Arthritis is unexplained warmth and redness in and around your joints. Because RA often begins in the body's smaller joints, you may notice this redness and heat first appearing in the joints of your fingers or toes or your hands and feet.
Warmth and redness are signs of inflammation, so these symptoms provide an early clue that a problem might be brewing in your joints (particularly if the warmth and redness occur without any recent physical injury or trauma).
Joint Pain and Swelling
Another early sign of RA is joint pain and stiffness and swelling in your joints. As the inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis progresses, more and more tissues get damaged. The initial warmth and redness you first experienced may progress to increased swelling and pain in the affected joints.
Joint pain and swelling are common in many forms of arthritis. Still, in general, the joints affected by RA tend to be "soft, warm, boggy, and tender" (as opposed to the hard and bony swelling that is more commonly seen with another type of arthritis, osteoarthritis). And while it may not present symmetrically in the earliest stages, RA tends to progress to a symmetric arthritis, where the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.
While this symptom is not RA specific, a persistent sense of fatigue and lack of energy is something that many people with rheumatoid arthritis experience early on. Because RA is an autoimmune disease, it has a widespread impact, often affecting the entire body. The inflammation that it causes in your joints and throughout the rest of the body can lead to a lot of fatigue.
If you're experiencing fluctuating or worsening joint symptoms as well as excessive fatigue and a lack of energy, it might be time to speak with your doctor. In addition to fatigue, depression (which may overlap with fatigue) can also be an early warning along with the other symptoms listed here.
Another commonly affected early sign of RA is joint stiffness. Often this starts with morning stiffness, meaning it is typically the worst in the mornings and lasts for more than 30 minutes. The stiffness generally returns after long periods of inactivity. This is different from joint stiffness experienced in osteoarthritis, where the stiffness tends to be worse after activity and at the end of the day.
While it may be difficult or scary to move with this level of joint stiffness, gentle movement and walking will likely improve the symptom, so you feel better as the day goes on. This limits to a range of motion, specifically in small joints, and makes tasks that used to be easy labor-intensive.
Symptoms that Come and Go
It is common for RA symptoms to come and go. This fluctuation or "flaring" of symptoms can make diagnosis more challenging to notice and pin down. You may go through periods where you experience joint symptoms and periods where they disappear entirely, and you feel fine.
While feeling better is welcome, this remitting of RA symptoms can be frustrating and difficult to pinpoint, especially when you're ready to go to the doctor. This is when prioritizing monitoring your symptoms and diet can be helpful in deducing what is triggering your flare.
From Early Signs to Action
Because symptoms of RA flare and remit, tracking and documenting your symptoms can be beneficial. Not only does it help raise your own personal awareness, but over time, it can help you have a more productive conversation with your healthcare provider about your symptoms and how they're impacting your life. You might also gain insight into factors that improve or worsen your symptoms.
If you and your doctor suspect that you might have rheumatoid arthritis, there are tests they can run to help with the diagnosis and medications they can prescribe to relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Lifestyle and Environment Affect RA Symptoms
Because RA is an autoimmune disease, another essential treatment avenue to explore, beyond medications, is lifestyle changes. Research shows that genetics set the stage for autoimmune disease, but environmental and lifestyle factors play a much bigger role in the development and progression of the condition.
Fortunately, environmental and lifestyle factors are two areas where we each have a lot of control. Mymee's 16-week program is designed to help people with autoimmune disease identify their individual triggers and make the environmental, dietary, and lifestyle changes that help them get their life back.
With a dedicated Mymee certified health coach, you can feel heard and understood. All Mymee coaches have identified their own personal triggers and reversed their autoimmunity symptoms. While every case is unique, working closely with someone who's been through their own journey can be a great way to feel less alone as you discover your triggers.
Mymee has seen lots of great success with reversing RA symptoms by identifying triggers. Joy, a makeup artist from NY, was on the road to giving up many things she loved in her life. After finding Mymee, she learned more about herself and was able to reverse her symptom and take back control of her life from RA.