alt=A woman with two different types of shoulder pain reaches for medication and her phone to call her rheumatologist.

The Many Faces of RA Pain

Last updated: March 2022

The pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis is not a one-size-fits-all situation. When I reflect on it, the types of pain, the way we each experience it, the duration, etc. are all unique and many-faceted.

In my experience, I have endured RA pain that can be sharp, dull, achy, burning, just to name a few. To add to the confusion, it may or may not be related to a flare. There have certainly been times when I may experience a day or two of hand pain, for instance, with no other symptoms. Or I may have swelling with it. The type of pain may vary as well. It may be sharp and intense or dull and achy.

Understanding my RA pain allows me to live a satisfying life

I mention these differences so that we can be prepared to manage them. I think in the early stages of RA, we do not fully appreciate the vast range of pain experiences that we may encounter in our RA journey.

I believe it is helpful to understand the range of differences so that we can share them accurately with our care team and even our friends, family and co-workers. Any information we can provide leads to better care and understanding. In turn, this allows us to continue to live a productive and satisfying life, despite the ongoing nature of RA.

Two examples of how I deal with pain differently

Scenario 1

Let’s say I have done something specific, like lifting boxes or some other heavy objects. I don’t necessarily feel any pain in the moment, but, the next day, or even the day after, I wake up with stiff and/or painful shoulders. I know immediately what I did to provoke the pain and so I apply ice and maybe take some OTC pain relievers (if approved by my doctor). After resting the joint, I may gently rotate it to keep the range of motion. Later, that day or maybe the next, if I still have pain, I might apply heat or a pain-relieving ointment to get relief. I might do a nice soak in the tub with Epsom salts as well.

Scenario 2

Out of the blue, with no obvious reason I can recall, my shoulder produces the same pain only this time the usual remedies do not provide any relief. In addition, there is swelling and/or redness that accompanies the pain.  Movement is very difficult, if not impossible. If this persists, unrelenting, for several days, I will likely call my rheumatologist to see if I can get in for an appointment or a telemedicine visit. This feels like a flare and not something related to an activity. I worry that it may mean my medication has stopped working or I need some additional treatments to get through this flare.

Knowledge is power when it comes to RA

Both situations cause pain and discomfort but one requires more assistance from my care team. Knowing the difference in your individual joint pain is crucial to managing RA. 

As you journey through the disease, it is wise to learn to differentiate your various pain experiences. By doing so, you will be able to more calmly handle your pain. Objectively and methodically examining your pain gives each of us a better sense of control over this chaotic disease. Anytime we can achieve that, we are once again, successfully managing the chronic nature of rheumatoid arthritis.


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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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