7 Textbook Signs Your Joint Pain is Rheumatoid Arthritis

Here’s what sets RA apart from other causes of joint stiffness.

Loading the player...

Everyone expects to deal with joint pain at some point. Maybe your wrist is throbbing after you played tennis out of the blue after a decade of your racquet gathering dust in the garage. Or your knees are totally killing you after a full day of sightseeing on vacation.

But if your joint pain feels like more than simply losing some of your youthful agility and nimbleness, there might be another cause. One possibility has little to do with how hard you stressed your body yesterday. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to turn against the body’s joints. The inflammation caused by this attack leads to a unique type of joint stiffness and swelling.

Joint pain can occur for a number of reasons, but these signs may indicate your pain is actually caused by RA, according to Ashira Blazer, MD, a rheumatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.

1. Your joints are stiff for hours in the morning.

For rheumatoid arthritis patients, inflammation of the joints tend to be  worst during periods of rest, so joint pain from RA is understandably present after eight hours in bed. Similarly, joint pain may flare up after long periods of sitting, like while watching a movie at the cinema (or several episodes of Friends on your couch).

“Generally, other causes of arthritis—such as osteoarthritis—can cause some stiffness, but no longer than 30 minutes,” says Dr. Blazer. “When a patient says that they’re stiff for an hour, or two hours, [or] maybe all morning long, I start to think about rheumatoid arthritis because that suggests inflammation.”

2. Your small joints ache.

RA typically affects little joints, like your knuckles, wrists, and elbows. Because RA is caused by inflammation, not wear and tear, the arthritis pain does not necessarily show up as often in weight-bearing joints like the knees.

3. Your joint pain is symmetrical.

Symmetrical joint swelling is a classic symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. “If it affects one or two joints on one side of the body, it tends to affect the same joints on the other side of the body,” says Dr. Blazer.

That said, early RA may affect only a couple joints at random, and symmetry may not occur until the condition has further set in, according to Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

4. Multiple joints are affected.

Pain located in a single joint could be caused by another condition (say, carpal tunnel). But if RA is present and causing inflammation, you’ll likely feel pain in multiple joints.  

A 2011 study in American Family Physician Journal concluded that the more joints that were affected, the higher the likelihood of an RA diagnosis. “We would almost rule out someone who has maybe one or two joints affected,” says Dr. Blazer. “We’re really looking for multiple joints, symmetric, on both sides of the body.”

5. Hot showers provide relief of joint pain.

Heat from hot showers (as well as heating pads, whirlpools, and electric blankets) can all ease pain caused by RA, according to the Arthritis Foundation. If these warming techniques work for you, you may have RA. The heat helps loosen the synovial fluid surrounding the joint, which provides lubrication and helps relieve stiffness.

6. Using your joints help improve your symptoms.

Staying active is a main component of RA treatment. While pain and stiffness may prompt you to use your joints less, you may find that using them actually soothes the pain. This may be a sign your joint pain is due to RA, as opposed to an injury or another type of arthritis.

A 2018 study from Arthritis Research & Therapy found that participants with RA had more sensitivity to pressure pain than control subjects without RA during periods of rest. However, during and after muscle contractions, participants with RA noticed a significant reduction in pain.  

Learn more about why physical activity can help arthritis symptoms.

7. You feel generally unwell.

If your joint pain is also accompanied by fatigue, low fevers, and loss of appetite, that may signal you have RA, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Flu-like symptoms occur when the immune system is activated. RA inflammation can also affect other organs in the body, which could result in other symptoms such as dry eyes and mouth.

Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis may be a life-changing event, but it doesn’t have to limit you. Check out  fashion designer Michael Kuluva’s tips for living well with RA.