When I was young, I thought rheumatoid disease (arthritis) was something only old people had. Then I got it myself. I was only 31. I learned that there were other kinds of arthritis, and RD was one that didn’t care how old you were. Or weren’t.
I thought bursitis was an old person’s disease, too, until I got it myself about four years ago. Yes, I was in my early 50s by then, but that no longer seemed old to me, and besides, younger people can also get bursitis. Right. Another myth exploded.
When I told my rheumatologist that I had some strange bone and muscle pain in my legs, he had me lay down on the exam table and started pressing various points on my legs and feet, then on my shoulders and neck. Several of the points, when pressed, hurt sharply enough to make me wince, jerk, or cry out. He told me I had fibromyalgia. I also had widespread inflammation that was making my body ache.
I was, to put it lightly, gobsmacked.
And that’s not all. If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d’ve sworn that only athletic tennis players got tennis elbow. But five months ago I got lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, myself. It started in my left elbow. The right side joined the party about a month later. Like the bursitis in my hips, it comes and goes, but when it comes, it hurts like the blazes.
And just to round things out, I have mild osteoarthritis in the smallest joints of my fingers. That’s the only place so far, but I have a feeling it’ll introduce itself to my knees or hips one of these days, and move on in. Most people over 50 seem to get OA eventually.
About a week ago, the Achilles tendons in both feet were tender and sore enough to hurt when I walked, and lasted for about three days. Oh, not again! I thought. Enough, already!
Fortunately, the pain faded away and hasn’t come back. I’m hoping--seriously--that my RD has nothing to do with it, that it was just random Achilles tendon pain brought on by, I don’t know, holding my feet wrong while I slept, or something.
When my rheumatologist diagnosed the bursitis, and later, the fibromyalgia, he told me that because rheumatoid disease is systemic, it causes inflammation throughout the body. However, it really lasers in on the synovial tissues. These include the fluid-filled capsules that enclose and cushion the moving joints, and the linings of the bursae and tendon sheaths.
It’s that inflammation that can trigger bursitis, tendinitis, and epicondylitis. Other soft tissues, like the muscles, can also become inflamed, causing muscle pain and tenderness. And while scientists aren’t sure, yet, what causes fibromyalgia, widespread, pain-causing inflammation can’t be good for the nerve endings. After a while, the brain begins to perceive pain even without a specific perpetrator.
When we think of rheumatoid disease, we think of painful, sometimes deformed joints and disability. We think of dull, deadening fatigue, feeling flu-ish, and maybe running a low fever. But RD can cause problems all over the body in many different ways. That’s why it’s so important to see a rheumatologist for treatment. Chemical and biological disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can’t cure RD, but they can drastically slow or even stop the inexorable, slow, damaging progression of the disease by reducing the body-wide inflammation it causes.
With the inflammation dampened, many of these comorbidities may ease off and resolve, as well. Go ahead, say it along with me: enough, already!
Check-in: As we start a new year, how are you feeling?