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When Men Get Rheumatoid Arthritis

By Susan Bernstein
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

One morning in 1972, Bill Mulvihill woke up to severe pain and stiffness in his elbow. 

“It was locked in a right angle. I couldn’t unlock it. And I never fully did again,” says Mulvihill, now 68 and living in Cincinnati.

Back then, Mulvihill thought he’d injured his elbow playing basketball. When his doctor told him that he had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), he thought, ‘That can’t be right. Only old people get arthritis!’”

But that’s not true. Nor is it true that the disease only affects women, though they are more likely to get it than men.

Too Tough for Treatment?

Men are more likely to get RA in middle age than in their golden years.

If it happens to you, you might be tempted to tough out the pain, but don’t delay seeing a doctor about it.  It’s important to get a diagnosis and start treatment right away, says James O’Dell, MD, chief of rheumatology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

It may be slightly harder to diagnose RA in men as it often first strikes the small joints of your hand, like the top finger joints or knuckles, or the toes. “In men with large, muscular, or bony hands, it may be harder to find swelling in those joints,” O’Dell says.

Men are less open to talking about their pain, says Tiffany Taft, PsyD, a psychologist at Oak Park Behavioral Medicine in Illinois.

Men and women are different when it comes to being open about an illness, Taft says. Men “are more likely to be stoic and reserved with their emotions. All of these influences can make a man feel ashamed to seek help, especially if he is struggling emotionally with an RA diagnosis.”

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