A survey of 3,100 individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—called the Rheumatoid Arthritis In America 2016—shows that initial symptoms are often invisible to others.
Receiving a diagnosis proved difficult with the average time between initial symptoms and RA diagnosis spanned four years. In addition, people with RA note feeling stigmatized for often “not looking sick” and the unpredictable nature of the condition.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic disease that causes joint swelling, pain, and stiffness. Approximately 1.3 million Americans have RA. Unlike the more common osteoarthritis, RA is an autoimmune condition, characterized by the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue. The inflammation from RA also attacks other parts of the body including organs, bones, and soft tissue, such as muscle, ligaments, and tendons.
Because RA attacks the body internally, many of the symptoms are invisible. Eighty-seven percent of respondents reported painful joints, 68% joint stiffness, and 64% both. In addition, respondents reported other unseen symptoms, such as fatigue (60%) and general stiffness, soreness or aching throughout the body (58%).
The extensive and invisible nature of the symptoms makes RA difficult and often frustrating to diagnose. In addition to the four year average timeframe for diagnosis, 76% of respondents saw at least three doctors and 54% had five or more office visits before receiving a diagnosis.
“RA symptoms can be caused by a variety of other conditions. In my case, I had a badly swollen elbow and was referred not to a rheumatologist, but to an orthopedic surgeon,” says RheumatoidArthritis.net patient advocate Carla Kienast. “The continuing pain and swelling led to a surgery I probably didn’t need. It wasn’t until a second orthopedic surgeon finally referred me to a rheumatologist a few years later that I was finally diagnosed and started receiving treatment.”
Even though others cannot see the symptoms, they can have an overwhelmingly negative impact on quality of life for those with RA. Seventy percent report these symptoms affect their overall quality of life. Some of the basics of life are affected, including the ability to exercise or take part in physical activity (77%), ability to perform family and/or household duties (71%), sleep (68%), and ability to work (62%).
In spite of these difficulties, RA patients are resilient. In addition to physician-prescribed medical treatments, many respondents use alternative therapies and made lifestyle changes to help cope with their unseen symptoms. Ninety-five percent use at least one complementary therapy, such as vitamins, exercise, or heat therapy. Eighty percent changed eating habits or utilized a special diet.
“There’s no denying that RA presents some significant challenges when it comes to following my dreams and living the life I want, so I think the most significant lifestyle change I have made has been a mental one,” says RheumatoidArthritis.net patient advocate Mariah Zebrowski Leach. “I have accepted the realities of RA as a part of my life, but I haven’t allowed RA to be the determining factor when it comes to achieving my goals. I like to say: I have RA – it doesn’t have me!”