Conditions That Can Look Like RA

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 04, 2022
4 min read

When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you usually have symptoms like join pain, stiffness, or swelling. But lots of other conditions share similar warning signs. It's sometimes hard to tell whether you have RA or something else.

You get Lyme disease from a tick bite. Bacteria from an infected tick can lead to symptoms that include fatigue, headaches, a fever, or rash.

Without treatment, Lyme disease can spread after several weeks to your joints, nervous system, or heart. Most often, it affects your joints. Around 60% of people with Lyme disease get arthritis unless they take antibiotics.

Joint issues caused by Lyme disease usually happen in your knees. But RA often shows up first in the smaller joints in your hands and feet. It may spread to larger joints later on.

"Lyme arthritis" usually heals after 30 days on antibiotic pills like amoxicillin or doxycycline. If not, your doctor may give you antibiotics through an IV. But 10% of people with arthritis from Lyme disease don’t heal even with antibiotics.

Unlike most cases of arthritis caused by Lyme disease, rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition. Medications can help control it, but there's no cure.

This type of arthritis often (but not always) affects people who already have psoriasis, a disease that causes itchy, scaly patches on your skin. It’s most common in people 30-50 years old, but you can get it at any age.

Like RA, psoriatic arthritis is a long-lasting autoimmune disorder, meaning your immune system attacks your body's healthy tissues.

Both conditions:

  • Cause joint stiffness, pain, and swelling
  • Can affect any area of your body
  • Cause symptoms that range from mild to serious
  • Have periods of more intense symptoms called flares

One major difference is that with psoriatic arthritis, you usually have psoriasis on your skin or nails, along with joint problems. Psoriatic arthritis is more likely than RA to cause:

Like RA, Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease. It harms your exocrine glands, which make moisture in your eyes, mouth, and other parts of your body. It causes these areas to become dry.

Sjögren’s can cause joint inflammation like rheumatoid arthritis. But it has also many symptoms that usually don't happen with RA, including:

Sometimes you get Sjögren’s as a complication of RA or another autoimmune disease like lupus, scleroderma, or myositis. You can also get it by itself.

You get gout when uric acid (a bodily waste product) from your bloodstream builds up and leaves crystals in your joints. That causes pain and inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis.

Kidney disease can cause the buildup of uric acid. Or it might be genetic. Some medications, like diuretics, can make it worse. So can drinking alcohol or eating foods with a substance called purines, like seafood and organ meats.

The later stages of gout look very similar to RA. But gout usually starts with serious pain and swelling in one area, often in the big toe. It tends to happen after an illness or injury.

RA may begin suddenly or start gradually, but it usually affects several joints. And unlike gout, it usually involves the same joint on each side of your body.

Gout can spread, but this may take several years.

This chronic disorder causes pain, stiffness, and fatigue. When you have it, your brain processes pain more intensely.

You’re at a higher risk of this condition if:

Since you can have RA and fibromyalgia at the same time, it can be hard to tell where your symptoms come from.

Both conditions cause:

  • Joint pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Stiffness
  • Symptoms that come and go

But RA, unlike fibromyalgia, causes visible harm and inflammation to your joints. It also gets gradually worse. Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain. But with RA, you usually have pain only in the areas that are affected.

Like RA, lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects more women than men. It also tends to occur in flares, followed by periods with less intense symptoms.

Lupus tends to cause more widespread inflammation in your body than RA does. It may affect your joints, but it's more likely to also harm your:

Both lupus and RA can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints. But compared to RA, the joint symptoms from lupus are less disabling. They're less likely to cause destruction in your joints, usually don't last as long, and change location more often. And unlike RA, lupus almost never leads to bone destruction.