Establishing a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis takes time, because early symptoms can be vague. And a single assessment is rarely adequate to characterize the disease because its symptoms vary from person to person. Rheumatoid arthritis ranges from a mild disorder that causes pain and stiffness but no joint damage to severe disease and early disability (especially among people who are not treated). In the most severe cases, joint damage progresses rapidly and requires aggressive drug and surgical treatment. For most people, however, the disease falls between these extremes, with bothersome pain and stiffness that may affect quality of life and function.
Diagnosis of your disease is further complicated by the fact that the disease tends to vary over time. Flares of severe symptoms alternate with periods of relative improvement that occur for no apparent reason. For accurate diagnosis, you and your health-care providers will need to monitor your progress. A major effort is currently underway to educate consumers and health-care providers about the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. People with the most severe forms of the disease, in particular, will usually benefit most from early treatment.