Original symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and visiting a GP

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease mainly affecting the joints, but it can affect other parts of the body too. The disease usually starts slowly, and symptoms may come and go over months or even years. However, severe symptoms can affect people quite suddenly. The sooner RA is diagnosed and treated the better.

RA can be hard to diagnose at first. GPs may suspect some form of arthritis but they often refer patients to a rheumatologist to make a specific diagnosis. This doesnt always happen. One woman consulted her GP about her painful swollen knee and he told her to go away and lose some weight.

Another woman developed a stiff neck. The next week her legs felt stiff. She consulted her GP, who told her to take some painkillers. Her condition got no better and eventually she was referred to a consultant who did blood tests and diagnosed RA (see Referral to the rheumatologist, tests and receiving the diagnosis).

RA often starts in just a few joints, such as the hands or feet. People may also notice that they feel a bit stiff in the morning, and they may experience flu like symptoms. One man set out for a run one morning and found his ankle swollen and painful, and later other joints hurt. He ached all over and felt absolutely washed out.

It began suddenly with a swollen ankle, pain in his knees and wrists, and aching all over as…

Age at interview 46

Gender Male

Age at diagnosis 38

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Another person realised that something was wrong when her young nephew asked her to explain why she was walking down the stairs like a baby. She also noticed that she had pains in her feet and found she was waking in the morning with stiff hands.

Before RA was diagnosed she found it hard to walk down stairs as her feet hurt and she had stiff…

Age at interview 49

Gender Female

Age at diagnosis 36

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In many people it began with minor symptoms. One woman said that at first she noticed that her fingers felt sore, as though she had chilblains. Another said the disease started with a pain in her small toe. The GP prescribed an antibiotic, thinking it might be an infection. Six months later she developed pain in other joints.

Another woman had pains in her wrist which slowly got worse, making it hard to write letters. She visited her GP on several occasions and was prescribed ibuprofen, but as symptoms worsened she found difficulty sleeping and getting up in the morning. A further visit to the GP led to a referral to a specialist and she was relieved to get a diagnosis.

After several visits to the GP with painful wrists and swollen joints she was referred to a…

Age at interview 53

Gender Female

Age at diagnosis 49

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A 37 year old woman recalled that when she was 27 she had developed a pain in her elbow. Her GP thought she had pulled a tendon. The next week she developed a pain on the ball of the foot. The GP thought she had pulled a muscle. Two weeks later the pain seemed to be spreading to other joints, and a different GP decided to send her to the hospital for blood tests.

One person noticed that something was wrong when her fingers locked as she was lifting a baby out of a cot. Another person became worried when he found it hard to get up from the floor. Someone else noticed a lump on his painful wrist.

Some people delayed going to see a GP. One woman, for example, had pains in her elbows, wrists, feet and hips for over two years, but didnt consult her doctor because she had nothing specific to show him. She finally consulted her GP when she could no longer play badminton.

She delayed going to the GP for advice because she had nothing specific to show.

Age at interview 47

Gender Female

Age at diagnosis 45

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Other people developed severe symptoms of RA quite suddenly and had to seek urgent help (see Referral to a rheumatologist). For example, one man developed an excruciating pain in his left arm and his right hand, so consulted his GP who was confused by his symptoms and suggested painkillers. By the end of the week all his joints had stiffened up and he could neither wash nor dress himself. He also sweated profusely and was severely sick.

The symptoms of RA developed quite suddenly, with excruciating pain in his left arm and right hand.

Age at interview 76

Gender Male

Age at diagnosis 74

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Another man developed a tremendous pain in his left ankle. He couldnt sleep, couldnt walk, and was in tears with pain. His wife called the GP, who gave him something to knock him out and a large dose of steroid.

He developed severe symptoms quite suddenly, with excruciating pain in one ankle.

Age at interview 55

Gender Male

Age at diagnosis 47

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One woman was shocked at the speed in which her symptoms developed. She had severe pains in her wrists and knees when she woke up in the morning, and couldnt understand why she was almost back to normal by the evening.

The GP diagnosed some people with related conditions. One man was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica and was treated for two years with steroids. He reduced the dosage but the symptoms persisted so the GP referred him to a specialist. He regretted not going to the GP sooner.

Thought his symptoms were rheumatism but did not visit a GP for 2 months which in hindsight was…

Age at interview 70

Gender Male

Age at diagnosis 70

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Children sometimes develop RA, and this is known as Juvenile Chronic Arthritis. A woman of 38 described how her Juvenile Chronic Arthritis began. She complained of pain, developed a rash and had a high fever.

Aged two she had painful joints, developed a rash and high fever. Juvenile Chronic Arthritis was…

Age at interview 40

Gender Female

Age at diagnosis 2

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What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Introduced by Professor David Blake, Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases and updated by Dr Catherine Swales, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre Arthritis simply means inflammation in...