Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Living Anatomy Lesson

Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Living Anatomy Lesson

Joint(noun): the place where two or more bones are connected.

It’s a simple definition that even my five-year-old can understand. Joints are where our bodies bend and move. Joints are where mommy hurts sometimes. And when you think about joint pain, it’s pretty easy to picture the obvious offenders. Knees. Fingers. Wrists. Toes. If you concentrate a little harder, you might come up with a few more. Ankles. Elbows. Shoulders. Hips. But it’s living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) that has taught me more about joints than I ever thought I’d learn!

Understanding RA joint pain

Worried about challenges with RA

When I was diagnosed with RA, I learned that it could basically affect any joint in my body – but I mostly worried about difficulty walking or opening jars; trouble brushing my teeth or climbing stairs. But one morning, about six months after being diagnosed, I woke with what felt like a ridiculous headache. At the time, I was trying to study for my law school exams, but I just couldn’t concentrate because my whole face hurt.

Trying to identify the pain

I was trying to focus on the source of the pain, so I could figure out how to move past it, when I realized the pain was coming from my jaw. Did I…chew something too hard? Had I been clenching my teeth in my sleep? Why on earth would my jaw suddenly start hurting? And then it hit me: my jaw is a joint. RA affects joints. I wondered what other joints could be hiding in my body that I knew nothing about.

Gaining knowledge from this RA community

I learned about a few more unusual joints by reading articles from my fellow contributors. Tamara taught me about the sacroiliac joint (or SI joint), which is the joint between the sacrum and the ilium bones of the pelvis. Pain in her SI joint and hip caused Tamara to contemplate the impact of limping at her new job. It was Wren who taught me about the cricoarytenoid joint (CAJ), which is located near the vocal chords. She discovered it after realizing that her voice had suddenly gotten more scratchy and raspy than usual. Wren also taught me about the ossicular joints, which surprisingly are located in your ears. An RA flare in the ossicular joints can actually cause hearing loss.

Lessons from my doctor

But it was my own body that taught me about the costosternal joint. I had been having a sharp pain in my chest, just under my bra line. At the time, I had a cold and a pretty severe cough. I asked the doctor about the pain in my chest and he told me I had likely strained something by coughing too violently. He gave me some antibiotics and said the pain would improve – but instead the pain persisted, got worst, and spread. I began to worry that maybe I had some kind of infection in my lungs or something.

Costochondritis & the costosternal joint

After a particularly painful day – where the pain in my chest got so bad I was having trouble functioning and taking care of my kids – my husband finally insisted we go to urgent care. That particular visit was a very bad experience, and despite telling all the medical staff I interacted with that I had RA, no one was able determine the cause of my chest pain. It wasn’t until I saw my rheumatologist a few days later that I learned about costochondritis: inflammation of the cososternal joint, which can happen as a result of RA.

I do appreciate the interesting knowledge I now have about the unusual joints in the human body. (I bet I’ll be a blast at parties from now on haha!) But you know what? Next time I think I’d rather take an anatomy class!

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