Diseases That Can Be Mistaken for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Joint pain is a common health problem that can affect people of all ages. It has a variety of causes and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is to blame. Conditions such as lupus, gout and fibromyalgia can also cause joint pain that look like RA. To get the right treatment, it’s important to rule out the look-alikes.

Joint Pain and Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA is one of the most common autoimmune diseases in the United States. According to the Arthritis Foundation, over 50 million Americans are affected. Despite RA’s prevalence, many people still don’t know for sure what it is — or why it happens.

RA is a chronic (long-term) disease that affects the joints, causing pain and symptoms of inflammation. These can include:

  • Warm, stiff, or swollen joints
  • Pain and stiffness after waking up in the morning or after sitting for too long
  • Fatigue, anemia, weight loss
  • Low-grade fevers
  • Rheumatoid nodules or firm lumps under the skin

RA can affect joints on both sides of the body. These include the hips, shoulders, hands, knees and wrists. If you have symptoms, speak to your doctor. It is very hard to diagnose RA because symptoms can vary from person to person. Also, they are similar to symptoms of other health conditions, like lupus and gout.

Joint Pain and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Joint Pain and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Doctors don’t even know the exact cause of RA. But they do believe some factors could contribute to the risk of RA, including:

Age. RA most commonly affects people between the ages of 40 and 60.

Gender. Women are more likely to develop RA than men.

Family history. You are more likely to develop RA if a member of your family has it.

Smoking. If you smoke, you may have an increased risk of more-severe RA.

Obesity. You can be at higher risk of RA if you are overweight or have obesity.

Environment. High asbestos or silica exposure can increase the risk of RA.

There is no cure for RA. But treatment options are available to ease symptoms and prevent long-term joint damage. You can use medication, rest, exercise and make diet changes.

Learn more: Why Are Women More Likely to Have Autoimmune Diseases?

5 Diseases That Can Be Mistaken for Rheumatoid Arthritis

1. Lupus

Lupus can cause joint pain, and that’s why it is often misdiagnosed as RA. But joint pain of lupus or lupus arthritis is more different. It tends to affect a single joint. When a particular joint is affected on one side of the body, the same joint on the other side is usually not affected.

Lupus is very common and can affect almost all parts of the body. This includes the skin, the joints, blood vessels and internal organs. If you have lupus, you may experience a lot of symptoms, like:

  • A butterfly-shaped rash
  • Body rashes or lesions
  • Fatigue, headache, anxiety
  • Unexplained fever
  • Hair loss
  • Kidney problems
  • Thyroid problems
  • Heart disease
  • Dry mouth and eyes

There is no cure for lupus. But medication and lifestyle remedies can help treat symptoms and prevent flares. You can also use a lupus supplement (like LupuFree) to reduce inflammation and promote the immune system balance.


Learn more: 12 of the Most Commonly Asked Questions about Lupus

2. Gout

Many doctors misdiagnose or confuse gout with RA. This is because both conditions can cause pain, redness, and swelling in the joints. However, you can differentiate these two diseases by looking at their initial signs, such as:

Gout tends to appear in the foot, most commonly in the big toe. It can cause intense pain, swelling, warmth, and redness in the toe. The root cause of gout is purines. These substances are found in rich food and drink, such as meats, shellfish and vegetables.

RA, on the other hand, causes joint pain associated with stiffness. It most commonly occurs in the hands, wrists, elbows and legs.

Gout can be treated with dietary changes. You can use medication (such as NSAIDs) and avoid purine-rich foods.

Gout joint pain

3. Lyme disease

Lyme disease can be confused with RA and vice versa. Both conditions can cause fever, stiffness, body aches, and fatigue. If not treated, they can become debilitating.

However, Lyme disease is very different from RA. It has a known cause (by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi). Lyme disease tends to affect a single joint, most commonly a knee. Symptoms include stiff, achy or swollen joints. This usually goes along with red rash, fatigue, night sweats and sensitivity to light.

Lyme disease is treatable and antibiotics will clear up the symptoms.

Lyme disease and joint pain
Lyme Disease

4. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder that often occurs with RA. The symptoms can be similar, including joint pain, fatigue, depression and loss of energy. This can make it harder for doctors to diagnose them. When you have both at the same time, it can become even harder.

Fibromyalgia can cause many symptoms that are different from RA, such as:

  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Pain that moves around the body
  • Sensitivity to light, noise and smells
  • Cognitive problems

Fibromyalgia and lupus can also go together. If you think you have these conditions, talk to your doctor. Medication and lifestyle changes can help you.

Fibromyalgia and Joint Pain

Learn more: How Lupus and Fibromyalgia Are Connected

5. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) and RA can have some of the same symptoms, like:

  • Joint pain
  • Morning stiffness
  • Warmth or tenderness in the joints
  • Limited range of motion

OA and RA can still have some differences. RA involves an autoimmune process, but OA does not. OA does not run in families like RA and it is usually trigger by certain factors like:

  • Gout
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Joint injuries
  • Joint deformities

Symptoms of OA tends to get worse later in the day. If you think you have this condition, speak to your doctor. Medications, such as NSAIDs can help treat pain and inflammation.

Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain

Learn more: 6 Tasty Foods That Battle Against Inflammation

Joint pain is caused by a number of factors. If you have symptoms and suspect RA or something else, visit your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent joint damage in the future.

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