What Is Commonly Misdiagnosed As Rheumatoid Arthritis?

a doctor explaining the procedure of a screening test to a patient

When it comes to diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis (RA), things can get tricky. Multiple conditions manifest symptoms similar to RA, causing a mix-up even for seasoned medical professionals. As a beginner trying to understand these intricacies, you deserve a guide that’s straightforward. Let’s dive right into it.

Why is RA often confused with other conditions?

RA presents symptoms similar to various conditions. This overlapping nature can delay diagnosis and sometimes lead to incorrect treatments. Now, let’s explore what these conditions are.

rheumatoid arthritis often confused with other conditions

1. Psoriatic Arthritis:

  • What’s the similarity? Both RA and psoriatic arthritis lead to painful, swollen joints.

  • The distinguishing factor: Patients with psoriatic arthritis might exhibit symptoms of psoriasis like red skin patches. Plus, they often experience sausage-like swelling in fingers and toes. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, nail changes and foot pain are more common in psoriatic arthritis.

2. Osteoarthritis (OA):

  • What’s the similarity? Both conditions can affect the small joints of the hands in middle-aged to older individuals.

  • The distinguishing factor: OA is primarily a degenerative disorder. The swelling in OA is harder and bony, unlike the soft, warm swelling of RA. Clinical findings also suggest morning stiffness in RA lasts longer than in OA.

3. Lupus:

  • What’s the similarity? Lupus, an autoimmune disease, when affecting the joints, mirrors RA symptoms.

  • The distinguishing factor: Unique to lupus patients, a butterfly-shaped rash may appear across their cheeks and nose. Expert opinions from the Lupus Foundation of America indicate that lupus does not cause the erosive joint damage seen in RA.

4. Viral Arthritis:

  • What’s the similarity? Certain viral infections can lead to joint symptoms that might be confused with RA.

  • The distinguishing factor: Viral arthritis usually clears up quickly. Recent research shows that Chikungunya, a viral infection, can mimic RA but is often identified through travel history and specific blood tests.

5. Lyme Disease:

  • What’s the similarity? Caused by tick bites, Lyme disease can lead to severe joint pain and swelling.

  • The distinguishing factor: Lyme often presents a rash in a bulls-eye pattern. If you’ve recently been to wooded areas or tall grasses and have joint pain, consult a specialist to rule out Lyme disease.

6. Fibromyalgia:

  • What’s the similarity? Both conditions can cause widespread musculoskeletal pain.
  • The distinguishing factor: Fibromyalgia patients typically experience tender points throughout their body, along with fatigue, sleep disturbances, and cognitive issues. As per the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association, it is not associated with joint inflammation, damage, or deformity as seen in RA.

7. Sjogren’s Syndrome:

  • What’s the similarity? This autoimmune disorder often co-occurs with RA, leading to similar joint pain and stiffness.

  • The distinguishing factor: According to the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation, dry eyes and mouth are hallmark symptoms of Sjogren’s, unlike RA.

8. Gout:

  • What’s the similarity? Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that can be mistaken for RA, particularly when it affects smaller joints.
  • The distinguishing factor: Gout attacks are usually sudden and intensely painful, often affecting the big toe. The American College of Rheumatology highlights that gout results from high levels of uric acid in the body.

9. Reactive Arthritis:

  • What’s the similarity? Reactive arthritis is a type of inflammatory arthritis that occurs after an infection. Joint pain and swelling can be similar to RA.

  • The distinguishing factor: Reactive arthritis is usually temporary and often follows infections in the urinary tract, genitals, or digestive system. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eye inflammation, urinary symptoms, or skin rashes often accompany reactive arthritis.

10. Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR):

  • What’s the similarity? PMR causes pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders, and hips, which can be confused with RA.

  • The distinguishing factor: According to Mayo Clinic, PMR typically affects people over the age of 65, while RA can affect individuals at any age.

Woman 20 years old confused thinking, white background

Staying Informed:

Understanding the differences between these conditions and RA is crucial. Knowledge empowers you to seek the right treatment for your unique circumstances. Always consult your doctor or a healthcare professional for accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Sources of Support:

When dealing with health concerns, it’s essential to lean on your support system. Reach out to friends, family, or join online communities and forums where others share their experiences and offer encouragement.

The Importance of Patient Advocacy:

Being your advocate is crucial. Seek out credible sources of information, consult healthcare professionals, and take an active role in your healthcare decisions.

Navigating the world of rheumatoid arthritis and its potential misdiagnoses can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. 

Expert Tips for a Proper Diagnosis:

Getting a correct diagnosis is crucial. Here’s what you can do to aid the process:

  • Maintain a symptom journal: Note down any symptoms, their frequency, and intensity.

  • Ask questions: When consulting your doctor, ask about any test results and their implications.

  • Seek a second opinion: Sometimes, a fresh perspective can make all the difference.

A doctor discussing a health report with a patient


Rheumatoid arthritis can be a complex condition to diagnose due to its symptom overlap with other diseases. Being proactive, informed, and advocating for your health can make a world of difference in ensuring you get the correct diagnosis and treatment. Remember, it’s your health journey, and every question you have is valid and essential. Stay informed and stay healthy!


1. What is similar to a RA diagnosis?

Several conditions mimic the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) including osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, gout, and Lyme disease. These conditions can present with joint pain, inflammation, and other overlapping symptoms.

2. How do you rule out rheumatoid arthritis?

Ruling out RA involves a combination of clinical examinations, blood tests, and imaging studies. Key blood tests include those for rheumatoid factor (RF) and anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA). Additionally, tests for inflammation such as the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) can be useful. Imaging tests like X-rays or MRI can help identify joint damage typical of RA.

3. What is the most accurate test for rheumatoid arthritis?

While there’s no single “gold standard” test for RA, the combination of blood tests (especially RF and ACPA) and clinical examination is the most effective method for diagnosis. It’s important to note that some people may have RA even if they test negative for these markers, hence the importance of a comprehensive evaluation.

4. What is the first thing to do when you have rheumatoid arthritis?

f you suspect you have RA, the first step is to consult a rheumatologist. Early diagnosis and treatment can help manage symptoms, prevent joint damage, and improve long-term outcomes. The rheumatologist will conduct a thorough examination, recommend tests, and if RA is confirmed, propose a tailored treatment plan.

5. How can I confirm I have arthritis

Confirmation of arthritis usually involves a clinical evaluation by a rheumatologist or orthopedic specialist. They’ll assess joint symptoms, order blood tests to check for markers of inflammation, and request imaging studies like X-rays to view joint structures. The type of arthritis (e.g., osteoarthritis, RA, gout) can usually be determined based on these combined findings.

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