Why Millennials Need to Start Worrying About Rheumatoid Arthritis

Updated: Apr. 30, 2021

After Lady Gaga opened up about her struggle with chronic hip pain, the world learned that symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can hit even young, healthy women. Here's what you need to know about the condition.


Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t just affect grandmas

The unfortunate reality is that the autoimmune disease, which causes often debilitating pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints, doesn’t discriminate. Though rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects two to three times more women than men, men can be and are diagnosed with the condition, according to Grace Wright, MD, rheumatologist and clinical associate professor at Langone Medical Center in New York City and past president of the American Association of Women in Rheumatology. More important, RA develops in people of all ages too. Dr. Wright is seeing an uptick in her patients who are 20 to 40 years old, and a second surge in the over-60 set. But so much is still unknown. “We have no sense for why those peaks occur,” she says.


It’s not clear why RA affects women more

Common theories include a genetic or hormonal link. Thing is, according to Dr. Wright, we don’t actually know what’s going on because those explanations don’t always hold up. The condition isn’t exclusive to women—men are impacted too. It also can occur pre-puberty (yep, that young), as well as during post-menopausal years where hormone levels are lower. “It’s not clear what the trigger is,” she says. (Here are the quiet signs you could be in menopause.)


Symptoms can be incapacitating

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can make daily function a challenge. You might feel extreme fatigue, like walking with bricks of cement on your feet or having no energy to move. Joint stiffness and swelling can also happen. “Patients describe themselves as ‘a robot that they forgot to oil,'” says Dr. Wright. Or, perhaps you feel so frozen that squeezing something is impossible, or it takes a few hours in the morning to get moving. Here’s how to make mornings easier.


It’s about more than your joints

RA is an inflammatory condition that affects your entire body. That means inflammation can also impair heart health, and the number one killer of women is cardiovascular disease. Patients can also become anemic, which further compromises energy levels. “RA leads to this all-around sense of not being well,” says Dr. Wright. These are the anemia symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.


Early symptoms can be subtle—or startling

Complicating matters, RA definitively isn’t a slow development or something that hits you suddenly—it can be either/or, says Dr. Wright. She’s had patients who feel a bit worse each day, sometimes not even knowing they were ill. Then, there’s the person who goes to bed and wakes up with everything swollen. “That’s not the common way RA appears, but you better believe those are the patients who are in your office the next day,” she says. Here’s how to manage everyday joint pain.


And they’re easy to brush off

If you have back pain, you may just chalk it up to having lifted something heavy. Or you feel fatigued and have no joint pain whatsoever. That’s even easier to brush off: You’re working like crazy, taking care of your family, you’re exhausted, and life’s exhausting. “Some people know they’re sick right away, while others figure it out two years later. You can rationalize it away, especially when you’re young and active,” Dr. Wright says. These are the medical reasons you may be tired all the time.


When to get checked out

It’s true that if your knee hurts, you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s RA. But if you feel joint pain, stiffness, or swelling that lasts for four to six weeks, go to the doctor, urges Dr. Wright. She may want to consider RA or another autoimmune condition like lupus. Perhaps too, you feel bad overall: achy joints, fatigue, low-grade fevers. After two weeks, that’s another time to get checked out. Or if you’ve had several cases of joint symptoms over the past few years, even if it affects different joints, you want to see your doc as well, she advises. “Waiting doesn’t make RA go away. It’s better to come in and get checked. Once damage happens to joints, we’re not that great at reversing it, so finding it early is always best,” she says.


There are treatments out there

Your doctor will want to do a couple tests: Blood tests to identify antibodies that may appear in RA, and X-rays to uncover erosions or holes in joints. Rheumatoid arthritis treatment then depends on how severe or aggressive the disease is. NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) can alleviate aches, while corticosteroids can help lessen inflammation. There are also a range of pills, joint injections, and intravenous infusion medications that your doctor will consider when determining the right course of treatment for you. These 23 at-home natural arthritis remedies may help.