Rheumatoid Arthritis Can Be an Invisible Illness

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An invisible illness is generally defined as any medical condition with symptoms, characteristics, or consequences that are not visibly apparent to other people. Simply put, you don’t look sick, so you must not be sick. Right? No, not right.

The invisible illness dilemma can be quite frustrating for the person who has a chronic disease. This frustration can become escalated when awkward situations occur because of the invisible illness, especially in public.

Years ago, I went out to dinner with my husband and two of our friends. My husband was driving and our friends were in the back seat. He parked in a handicapped parking spot, as he should have, because I had a handicapped parking permit. He hung the sign on the mirror and the three of them were quicker to exit the car than I. Occupants of another car that was driving by stopped to chastise us for “illegally and inappropriately” parking in the handicapped spot.

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It is easy to see how this became an issue since they saw the three healthy individuals first, and even when I emerged, I didn’t “look” disabled, especially at first glance. They weren’t even convinced when I disclosed that I had rheumatoid arthritis because, after all, arthritis is exclusively an old person’s disease. Right? No, not right.

Judgement Based on Appearances

People judge other people — it’s human nature. People react to what they see. Based on what they see, they formulate a thought and pass judgment. Another awkward example: At the U.S. Post Offices where I live in Las Vegas, there is no line that is designated for handicapped or disabled people. Recently, I inquired if they had such a line and was told “No, just go to the front of the regular line and we will help you next.” Incredible, I thought, to ask someone with an invisible illness to, essentially, cut in line.

Visible vs. Invisible Symptoms

When you think about invisible illness even more, it is somewhat flattering to look well despite the illness. I daresay that there are people with rheumatoid arthritis who try to hide the visible effects. I was with my mother many years ago when a clerk in a bakery asked me if I had rheumatoid arthritis. The clerk recognized it in my hands because they had a relative with the disease. I wasn’t offended by the question and answered honestly that I did have RA. My mother was horrified that the clerk asked such a personal question. Visible versus invisible — perhaps it’s a no-win situation. Maybe it’s more about realistic expectations.

Deformity Is Not the Only Characteristic of Inflammatory Arthritis

Many people, but not all people, are aware that joint deformity is among the signs and symptoms of RA. Hand deformity is a common, visible sign of the disease. Foot deformity is also associated with RA, but it may less visible covered by socks and shoes. If you walk with a limp, or have other gait abnormalities, that may be apparent to others, but they wouldn’t necessarily think of RA versus an injury.

Invisible Signs of RA

Numerous symptoms of RA that are invisible. It is a lot to expect another person to know what you deal with on a daily basis unless they know you personally.


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Pain – Even if pain causes you to grimace, others won’t know what is wrong or specifically what is hurting. They won’t know if it’s acute or chronic, mild, or severe, or any other pertinent detail about how it impacts you.

Inflammation RA – is an inflammatory type of arthritis. Inflammation is part of the underlying mechanism that causes joint damage. The inflammatory process occurs behind the scenes, so to speak, and isn’t visible.

Persistent fatigue – This can be an enormous problem for people with RA. While RA-related fatigue isn’t well understood, it’s likely that pain, inflammation, and insufficient sleep contribute to it.

Joint stiffness – Joint pain and inflammation result in stiffness and limit your range of motion. Morning stiffness is a primary characteristic of RA, but most people don’t see you when you wake up and get out of bed — it’s invisible to them.


Joint swelling – Joint inflammation can cause swelling. Often, signs of swelling are covered by clothing, so it is invisible to other people.

Anemia – Anemia, especially a type known as anemia of chronic diseases, is not uncommon with RA. This, too, is an invisible consequence of the disease.

Not only are the aforementioned physical signs and symptoms of RA invisible, the effects of the disease on quality of life are also invisible. RA can impact many areas of your life, such as your work productivity, family life, and social life, causing functional limitations and physical limitations that affect activities of daily living and your ability to work, and contributing to depression, isolation, and more.


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