Mornings are tough for many people, but around 15 years ago, Melissa Kehl’s mornings started getting a lot harder. “My hands and feet would feel stiff and swollen,” says the 45-year-old swim coach and advocate for the Arthritis Foundation. “It was bad throughout the day, but worse in the morning when I woke up.”
At the beginning of 2006, Melissa’s doctor diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands and told her that her feet were stiff because she stood so much throughout the day. “I even got a foot spa to try at home because I thought it would help,” she says. “But it didn’t.” It wasn’t until Melissa was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the end of that year that she finally had a medical reason for those a.m. achy joints.
Signs of rheumatoid arthritis
“Rheumatoid arthritis is a very complex disease that affects the whole body,” says Petros Efthimiou, MD, a rheumatologist in New York. When you have RA, your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints, like your hands and knees, which results in inflammation. This then damages the tissue of the joints, causing pain, stiffness, swelling, misshapenness, and more. On top of that, people with RA also feel extreme fatigue and morning stiffness, the latter of which can be an early warning sign.