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Joint Stiffness and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Joint stiffness is a hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic disease that affects 1.3 million adult Americans. Resulting from an abnormal response of the immune system, rheumatoid arthritis inflames the soft tissue that lines the surface of joints (called the synovium). It is a systemic disease that not only makes joints stiff and painful, but can also affect other parts of your body, such as internal organs.

By noting symptoms such as joint stiffness and seeking early treatment, you can feel better, slow or stop progression of the disease, and minimize joint damage. This allows you to live a more active, full life.

Joint Stiffness: Early Sign of Rheumatoid Arthritis

How well you can move an arm, leg, or finger in different directions reflects the joint's range of motion. If you develop joint stiffness, your range of motion is reduced. Your joint doesn't move as well as it once did.

Joint stiffness may occur with or without joint pain. Other signs and symptoms in addition to the joint stiffness will help your doctor figure out what kind of arthritis you have.

With rheumatoid arthritis, joint stiffness and other symptoms such as pain or fatigue tend to develop and worsen over several weeks or months. Joint stiffness is most noticeable in the morning and may not improve for an hour or two. Sometimes it lasts throughout the day.

Joint stiffness from RA often affects these areas:

  • Joints of the fingers and hands
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Knees
  • Ankles
  • Feet

Shoulders, hips, and jaw may also be affected. 

Three different processes occur as RA progresses..

  • In the first, the lining of the joint becomes inflamed. This causes stiffness, pain, warmth, redness, and swelling around the joint. Severe morning stiffness, which can limit your ability to function, is often the very first sign of the disease.
  • In the second, the rapid division, growth, and influx  of inflammatory ( white blood cells) cells causes the synovium to thicken.
  • In the third, the inflammatory cells release enzymes that may digest bone and cartilage. This often causes more pain, loss of joint shape and alignment, and loss of movement. 

Joint Stiffness: Risk Factor for Early Joint Damage

How quickly joint damage occurs with rheumatoid arthritis varies from person to person and depends on many factors such as inflammation or certain antibodies that can be measured with tests. The more risk factors you have, the more important it is to get early treatment.

Tracking Symptoms of Joint Stiffness and Pain

Before you see your doctor, make a list of your symptoms and describe when they occur. Do they occur after a particular activity or first thing in the morning? Note when joint stiffness and other symptoms first began, whether they came on suddenly or have recurred, and whether they've changed in intensity over time or moved to new joints.

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