You may find the stiffness in your joints is at its worst when you wake up in the morning but a key sign of rheumatoid arthritis is that the morning stiffness doesn't go away after an hour or so, as it does in osteoarthritis. Another tell-tale sign is that both sides of your body are affected in the same way. So if you have pain in the fingers of your right hand, you're also likely to have painful fingers on your left hand.
The symptoms you get will change from one day to the next and also over time. You might have periods when your symptoms are so mild that they hardly bother you at all. And other days when the pain and stiffness feel worse and stop you doing day-to-day tasks, like fastening your buttons. When this happens your doctor might say you're having a 'flare-up'
Do I have arthritis?
Here are five Questions and Answers to help you decide whether you have arthritis and if so, whether it is rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. If this test suggests that you have rheumatoid arthritis, see your doctor immediately. An early diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis is very important in order to prevent joint damage and disability.
1. Are your joints stiff in the morning when you wake up?
Yes: This is true of most types of arthritis.
No: You may have pain for reasons other than arthritis.
2. Does morning stiffness last for more than half an hour?
Yes: Morning stiffness that lasts for more than an hour is characteristic of most types of inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.
No: You may have osteoarthritis.
3. Is the stiffness in the hands and feet on both sides of the body?
Yes: Pain on both sides of the body is characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis.
No: Pain that begins in one joint is more likely to be osteoarthritis.
4. Does the pain worsen with movement or activity?
Yes: Osteoarthritis symptoms worsen with movement or activity.
No: Joint pain that is alleviated by activity could be another form of arthritis.
5. Is the joint pain accompanied by redness, swelling, warmth and tenderness?
Yes: This is more likely to be an inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis.
No: This is more likely to be osteoarthritis.
How does the condition progress?
When you first get rheumatoid arthritis it will usually involve discomfort in the fingers, knuckles, wrists or balls of the feet on both sides of your body. It's difficult to say how the disease will progress because it affects people differently, but generally the inflammation will worsen over time. Here are some things that tend to happen to people who have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis:
- Your symptoms are usually unpredictable.
- Some people find that their symptoms get worse very rapidly.
- Your joints may become puffy and rheumatoid nodules - lumps under your skin - may develop on your hands, feet or elbows.
- Your symptoms may get gradually worse with more severe pain and stiffness. The inflammation may cause severe damage to the joints - resulting in the development of deformities of the hands and feet.
You may be worried rheumatoid arthritis will affect your ability to do things and leave you dependent on other people. Although this does happen to some people, it usually takes many years. And there are treatments your doctor can prescribe to reduce the damage that rheumatoid arthritis does to your joints and help you stay active.
When to see your GP
If you get pain and stiffness in your joints you should see your GP. Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatments can help significantly. Some treatments for rheumatoid arthritis help to slow down or halt the disease and so can prevent your joints becoming permanently damaged. It's important to book in with your doctor sooner rather than later, as the earlier you start treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, the better.
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