What Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Feel Like?

woman with knee pain sitting in outdoor path
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People often ask what it feels like to have rheumatoid arthritis. Those who have not experienced it first-hand are curious. Those who are experiencing early symptoms or who are newly-diagnosed are even more curious, as they try to figure out what lies ahead. 

How RA Symptoms Differ Among Patients

There are three important points you should keep in mind when considering what it feels like to have rheumatoid arthritis.

  1. There is variation in how people experience rheumatoid arthritis. People don't develop the disease in exactly the same way (i.e., gradual versus sudden onset of symptoms), have exactly the same joints involved initially, or have the same rate of disease progression. 
  2. The severity of symptoms can vary among individual patients. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe at disease onset and can change over time.
  3. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis achieve "remission." Most, however, do not achieve remission and have persistent symptoms that require treatment.

That said, there are typical characteristics associated with rheumatoid arthritis which help us to understand what it feels like to have the disease.

How RA Symptoms Commonly Develop

In about two-thirds of patients, according to Rheumatoid Arthritis: Early Diagnosis and Treatment, rheumatoid arthritis is insidious and symptoms develop gradually.

For others, it can seem like a sudden burst of symptoms. Even when it seems sudden, it's not uncommon to think back and recall earlier signs of the disease that were overlooked or disregarded.

Most people notice pain and stiffness in the affected joints. One (i.e., monoarticular) or a few (i.e., oligoarticular) joints may be affected at first, but rather quickly that changes to a symmetric distribution of joint involvement.

There can be limited range of motion in the affected joints as well.

In early rheumatoid arthritis, while there is typically an awareness that something is wrong, it is unclear what may be causing the symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis is certainly not what comes to mind initially. Most people suspect an injury, strain, sprain, repetitive stress, or even something as uncomplicated as sleeping in the wrong position. But, as symptoms persist and often intensify over a matter of weeks -- even after trying conservative or over-the-counter remedies -- it becomes clear that the problem should be evaluated by a doctor. 

Physical Manifestations of RA

The earliest indications of joint pain can be quite intense. If large joints are involved (knee or hip), weight bearing can be difficult. In other words, putting full weight on your knee or hip by standing or walking can increase the level of pain. Joint stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis is characteristically worse in the morning. People with rheumatoid arthritis typically have increased pain and stiffness when they first wake up, making it difficult to get out of bed. It can take more than one hour for morning stiffness to subside.

Swelling may be present around the affected joint.

There may be visible puffiness with swelling, making the joint feel tight or "full". Redness and warmth, which are signs of active inflammation, may also be present. If a joint is warm to the touch, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible. In such cases, infection must be ruled out and the cause of inflammation determined (i.e. inflammatory types of arthritis versus degenerative arthritis). There can be systemic manifestations of early rheumatoid arthritis, too. Flu-like symptoms, fatigue, malaise, and fever can occur.

As time goes on, joint deformities may develop, possibly interfering with normal movement.

Hand deformities, for example, may be associated with pain, decreased strength, and reduced manual dexterity.  If foot deformity develops, your gait may be affected. Walking may become more difficult. It may even interfere with finding comfortable and supportive footwear. 

Early and appropriate treatment is necessary to bring joint pain, joint stiffness, and inflammation under control. The goal of treatment is to ensure that you feel as well as possible despite having the disease and to prevent permanent joint damage and systemic complications.


Rheumatoid Arthritis: Early Diagnosis and Treatment. Cush et al. Chapter 2. Clinical Features of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Third Edition. Professional Communications, Inc.

Rheumatoid Arthritis. Luqmani, Pincus, Boers. Oxford Rheumatology Library. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. Firestein et al. Ninth Edition.