For people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), early diagnosis and treatment are critical to relieve pain and avoid serious complications like joint deformity or osteoporosis. But diagnosing it can be tricky, since there is no one test for RA.
Joint pain, RA’s hallmark symptom, is a significant factor that can be caused by many diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), severe joint pain among American adults rose significantly between 2002 (10.5 million people) and 2014 (14.6 million people).
If you have joint pain but you don’t have a definitive RA diagnosis, you may be dealing with one of these seven health conditions:
- Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, affects more than 52 million Americans, according to the CDC. It occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints breaks down, allowing bones to rub against one another and cause pain. “In osteoarthritis, the immune system is not involved, like it is with RA,” says Dimitrios Pappas, MD, a rheumatologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “It’s more wear and tear of the cartilage between the joints.”
- Lupus, like RA, is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder. It affects 1.5 million Americans, 90 percent of whom are women. In addition to causing joint pain, antibodies produced by the body also attack other parts of the body, including the nervous system, heart, lungs, kidneys, and skin. One of the telltale signs of lupus is a “butterfly wing”-shaped facial rash across both cheeks. Other symptoms may include fever, fatigue, headaches, and shortness of breath.
- Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that affects more than 2.3 million people. Joint pain associated with MS, as well as pain in many other parts of the body, is caused by damage to the myelin sheath that covers nerve fibers. The result is a disruption of nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord that control functions such as muscle coordination, vision, and speech. Other symptoms may include numbness or tingling, balance problems, muscle spasms, and blurred vision.
- Gout is a form of arthritis that affects more than 8 million people — men more frequently, according to the CDC. Joint pain associated with this disease is triggered by high levels of uric acid in the blood that form needle-like crystals in joints and surrounding tissue. Sudden, excruciating foot pain, especially in the large joint of the big toe, is common, but other joints can be impacted, too. “Gout can present like RA, since the inflammation is specific to the joints,” says Dr. Pappas. “But it’s not an autoimmune disease like RA.”
- Fibromyalgia, a chronic, arthritis-related condition, affects as many as 5 million people, predominantly women, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes it, but fibromyalgia causes body-wide pain, along with fatigue, sleepiness, and memory problems. Unlike RA, it is not considered a progressive disease, which means joints will not continue to deteriorate over time.
- Lyme Disease, caused by a bacterial infection that’s spread through deer tick bites, affects about 30,000 people each year, although that number may be as much as 10 times higher, according to the CDC. The most common symptom is a rash at the site of the bite that looks like a bull’s eye. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause joint pain, as well as severe headaches, Bell’s Palsy, heart palpitations, dizziness, and problems with short-term memory.
- Chikungunya is a viral disease spread by mosquitoes. Outbreaks have occurred in Africa, Asia, and Europe; the virus was discovered on the Caribbean Islands in 2013. The most common symptoms are joint pain and fever, but they can also include headaches, muscle aches, and a rash. Travelers can protect themselves by wearing insect repellent and long sleeves. If you have joint pain and have traveled to areas where outbreaks have occurred, talk to your doctor.