Postpartum aches and pains are common, but when joint pain is severe and unrelenting, it can be an indication of rheumatoid arthritis. Women should report their symptoms to their doctors, who can perform x-rays and lab tests to confirm a diagnosis. Together they can come up with an appropriate treatment plan for the postpartum period.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that systematically inflames and attacks multiple joints in the body. This can lead to intense pain, redness, swelling and joint deformity. Fatigue exacerbates the disease, which is why postpartum women are so vulnerable to R.A.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diagnoses of R.A. are decreasing worldwide. Women are two to three times as likely as men to develop it. While research shows that there is a higher risk of developing the disease postpartum, breastfeeding women decrease their chances. A 1998 “Annals of Rheumatoid Diseases” study reports that women who test positive for rheumatoid factors prior to pregnancy are more likely to develop R.A. after giving birth, but the tests are not part of standard prenatal care.
A March 1993 “Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology” study confirms the positive correlation between the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and the postpartum period. It also notes that pregnancy seems to ease symptoms of R.A. and raises the question of whether R.A. actually begins during pregnancy and is only exacerbated postpartum. A February 2010 “Annals of the Rheumatoid Diseases” study reports that the onset of rheumatoid arthritis increases in the first 0 to 24 months postpartum.
While there is no cure for R.A., it can be treated with physical therapy; anti-inflammatory, corticosteroid, antirheumatic and biologic response modifying medications; and, in more severe cases, surgery. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says that scientific evidence is not adequate to support the effectiveness of alternatives like herbs or acupuncture for R.A. They stress, however, the importance of a healthy diet, rest and stress reduction--all of which can be particularly challenging for the postpartum mother.
It can be difficult to discern what is a normal postpartum pain and what may actually be R.A. Yet early intervention is key to successful treatment of R.A. The longer the disease goes untreated, the more invasive the treatments become. Women should report any unusual symptoms to their doctors as they arise.