Feel the Burn . . . and the Ache, the Throb, and the Stab
I often marvel at how one disease can be so inconsistent. Rheumatoid arthritis varies widely in how it affects individuals, with a range of severity, a smorgasbord of symptoms, and an assortment of body parts it can affect. Therefore, RA can look quite different from person to person.
The different types of RA pain
Even in the same individual, there are good days and bad days: joints that are primarily affected, those that are unscathed, and those that only hurt on rare occasions.
Different pain sensations
And, even the sensation of pain itself varies. Most often, the word I would use to describe the pain in my joints is “achy.” However, that doesn’t begin to cover the litany of ways I experience the pain of RA. Sometimes the ache is dull, like a mischievous butter knife, while other times the ache is sharper, like a steak knife. Occasionally the pain escalates to something that can no longer be explained as an ache, being more like a recently sharpened butcher knife.
Pain severity or intensity
The pain can hold steady, with a sustained severity that might be mild, moderate or intense, or it can throb like a Morse code message screaming “S.O.S.!” throughout my body. Sometimes the pain is a deep burn as if someone has inserted smoldering embers deep inside my joints. This burning sensation can also radiate, broadcasting heat into surrounding muscles and tendons. Like an ornery imp sneaking up on me, the pain can also feel like a tight pinch. Or it can be more expansive, more like the pressure of a vise than the precision of a pinch.
As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, sometimes these different sensations mix together. For instance, there’s the throbbing ache that’s like a rubber mallet pounding to the beat of heavy bass. There’s the sharp burn, like the stabbing from a sword fresh from a blacksmith’s red hot flames. There’s also a burning pinch, that feels like skin burns children sometimes give one another on the schoolyard by twisting a wrist or forearm in opposite directions. With all this variety of pain, my threshold for it has increased.
The pain varies from day to day
Sometimes a friend or relative will ask how I’m feeling, and when I respond that I’m fine, a loved one might press and say, “So you’re not having any arthritis pain?” With people I’m close to, I try to explain that I always have some pain in my body. However, if the pain is only a mild ache in my toes, fingers, and wrists, I’ve learned to relegate it to the background of my awareness, like soft white noise. If I take stock of my body in any given moment, I can feel multiple places that ache. However, in comparison to stabbing or shooting pain, or even in comparison to a deep, intense ache, mild pain has become so commonplace for me that I do not give it my awareness.
Talking honestly about RA pain
I have reached a place where I feel like I’m being honest in saying I feel fine if my pain is at a mild level. After all, if I were to have a completely pain-free day, I would be lying to say I felt fine; rather I would be exultant, fantastic, marvelous, amazing. Being as intimately familiar with the many hues and shades of pain that exist, I’ll happily take a day that is only mildly achy.
On a scale of 1(low) to 5(high), how difficult is it for you to talk about having RA?