Doctor: When joint stiffness makes daily tasks difficult, seek help


Achy joints hit people at all ages and for many reasons. However, when morning joint stiffness makes daily tasks such as buttoning a shirt or opening a jar difficult, it may be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, or RA.

About 1.5 million people in the United States have RA. More women — nearly three times as many — than men experience it. For women, RA typically appears between ages 30 and 60. In men, it often surfaces later in life.

Dr. Khader Mustafa
Dr. Khader Mustafa

RA is a type of inflammatory arthritis that makes everyday tasks a challenge. Chronic joint inflammation characterizes the disease. Most often, it affects the fingers, hands, knees, and feet. But sometimes, it causes inflammation of organs, such as the lungs, eyes, skin, and heart.

An autoimmune disorder, RA occurs when a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks an individual’s own body tissue. Instead of protecting the body from outside germs, the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. The tissue lining the joint thickens and excess fluid builds up in the joint, causing it to swell. The swollen, inflamed joint stretches, irritating the capsule that surrounds it.

Using the affected joint can cause stiffness, swelling, and intense, constant pain. Over time, the inflammation can lead to bone erosion and damage to the cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and bone — resulting in permanent joint destruction and deformity.

What are the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Early symptoms of RA include fatigue and joint pain. Then, patients typically develop joint swelling, redness, warmth, tenderness, stiffness, and loss of range of motion. Other symptoms are low-grade fever and a lack of energy.

RA is a chronic condition that progresses over time for most patients. They experience periods of flares, or worsening symptoms, which may last from weeks to months. Some patients enjoy periods of time when their symptoms are minimal or nonexistent. This is called remission and can be achieved with proper treatment. Relapse occurs when symptoms return after a period of remission. This typically occurs when medications are stopped for various reasons.

For the individual with rheumatoid arthritis, the sooner the treatment begins, the better the outcome likely will be. This starts with getting a correct diagnosis. Sometimes, diseases such as gout, fibromyalgia, and lupus resemble RA. It is important to see a doctor, like a rheumatologist, who has experience diagnosing autoimmune diseases and arthritis. The doctor may use blood tests, X-ray, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Once diagnosed, the goal of treatment is to prevent or slow the damage to the joints, manage pain, and improve the patient’s quality of life. Many medications can help treat the inflammation. Also, rest, exercise, and a healthy, balanced diet are key. Sometimes surgery is needed to correct or replace deformed or worn-out joints.

Today, there are more treatment options than ever before for people facing RA. When individuals recognize the symptoms and seek treatment early, they will feel better sooner. Also, they will be at lower risk for the severe damage to their joints that can lead to joint replacement. Most importantly, they will more likely get back to good health and living an active life.

Dr. Khader Mustafa, a rheumatologist with ProMedica Physicians Rheumatology, has more than 22 years diagnosing and treating arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions and autoimmune diseases. His office is at the ProMedica Health and Wellness Center in Sylvania. For a consultation with Dr. Mustafa, call 567-585- 0115.