Another morning and you’re stuck under the covers feeling achy all over. Your fingers barely budge, and your feet are tender. It will take a while to get your bones up and moving because every step is painful, at least until you’ve had a long, hot shower.
What the heck is going on?
If you’re relatively young and have swollen, stiff, tender joints, yeah, you know something’s wrong—even if you don’t know what it is, says Vivian Bykerk, MD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. At the same time, older adults who have achy joints may think they know what’s wrong with them. “They think it’s just arthritis”—the age-related type known as osteoarthritis, she explains. But what many people fail to appreciate is that there are different kinds of arthritis.
If it’s rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease that attacks the lining of the joints, you need to listen to what your body is telling you and see a rheumatologist for an evaluation, especially if your symptoms last longer than six weeks.
Roughly 1.5 million Americans have RA, and a majority of them are women, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. The disease typically strikes in middle age, but it can also affect teens and young adults.
What exactly is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that, for whatever reason—probably some combination of genetic and environmental factors or even hormonal changes—a person’s immune system goes rogue. Instead of destroying germs, their infection-fighting white blood cells mount an assault on healthy tissue surrounding the joints. And that process causes joint inflammation and subsequent pain and symptoms. “People will notice they’re puffy or swollen and stiff and they don’t feel well,” Dr. Bykerk notes.
RA symptoms can wax and wane over time, which can make it tough, at least initially, to figure out what your body is telling you. It might start with a few weeks of pain in your wrists or a sore shoulder before symptoms fade away. You might think you have the flu. And just when you thought you were on the mend, another wave of achiness and exhaustion flares up. However, for other people, RA symptoms hit in one fell swoop.