Disability May Begin Years Before an RA Diagnosis

Listening to those early rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and seeking treatment means a better shot at remission.

by Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Writer

Maybe your early RA symptoms were not in your head after all. According to new Mayo Clinic research, patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may have clues as early as a year or two before the disease is diagnosed.

Researchers found that compared to those without RA, people with the disease had more trouble with daily activities such as eating, dressing, using the bathroom, bathing, walking, and housekeeping before their diagnosis, according to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. When any of these daily activities are difficult, it’s called functional disability. In this recent study, the prevalence of functional disability in the two years before diagnosis was more than twice as high in those with RA compared to those without.

RA is a systemic autoimmune disease, in which the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own tissues. Symptoms of RA may include joint pain or swelling, fatigue, fever, and loss of appetite. About 1.3 million Americans have RA. The cause is not fully understood.

In this most recent study, about 1,000 people — half with RA and half without —were asked to fill out questionnaires about their daily activities. They provided information every year about their ability to perform six daily tasks without assistance. In the period from two to three years before the RA diagnosis, there was no difference between the groups.

However, in the periods from one year to two years before the RA diagnosis, 26% of those having difficulty with one or two tasks were later diagnosed with RA, compared to just 11% for those without the condition.

These findings are important to those of us who suspect our aches and pains may be more than normal aging. “If you are struggling with daily activities, such as eating, dressing, or walking, these symptoms should be brought up to your primary doctor who can then guide an evaluation and consider a rheumatology referral if needed,” says Elena Myasoedova, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic rheumatologist and the study’s primary author.

Receiving RA treatment sooner rather than later may be the key to living your best life according to the National Arthritis Foundation. For some rheumatologists, when you treat RA matters as much as how you treat it. They believe strongly in early arthritis treatment, prescribing an aggressive treatment believe that by doing so, they just may stop the disease in its tracks. Dr. Myasoedova agrees. “For the rheumatology community, the goal is to be able to detect and treat RA as early as possible.”

While there is no single test to confirm RA, according to the National Arthritis Foundation, there are criteria that help doctors diagnose it. In its early stages, RA may resemble other forms of arthritis. You may have joint tenderness, swelling, warmth, or limited movement. RA usually affects joints on both sides of the body, whereas other forms of inflammatory arthritis such as psoriatic arthritis may be located on only one side of the body. A specialist with specific training may be required to diagnose RA, so if you’re worried about your symptoms ask for a referral.

Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.

Davenport is the founder of Tracyshealthyliving.com. Using the latest scientific research, she helps people live their healthiest lives via one-on-one coaching, corporate talks, and sharing the more than 1,000 health-related articles she's authored.