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Objective

Understanding the features and patterns of symptoms that characterize the earliest stages of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is of considerable importance if patients are to be identified and started on treatment early. However, little is known about the characteristics of symptoms at the onset of a disease that eventually progresses to RA.

Methods

A systematic review of qualitative peer-reviewed publications was conducted to identify the earliest symptoms associated with the onset of RA. A total of 1,736 abstracts were searched to identify relevant publications. Twenty-six publications were identified, assessed for quality, and subjected to analysis informed by thematic and grounded theory frameworks.

Results

Several interacting themes describing the early symptoms of RA were identified, including swelling, pain and tenderness, stiffness, fatigue and weakness, and the emotional impact of symptoms. For each symptom, different and evolving intensities were described; in some cases, patterns of symptom onset and symptom complexes at the onset of RA were highlighted. Importantly, this review has emphasized major deficiencies in the literature. None of the studies reviewed originally aimed to explore symptoms at RA onset (often discussions about symptom onset were secondary to the study's primary aim). Also, many of the articles identified sampled people diagnosed with RA many years previously, making their recollection of symptoms at onset less reliable.

Conclusion

In order for clinicians to fully understand the earliest phases of disease, the nature of symptoms at onset needs to be understood. The current work represents a useful starting point, but this area needs further qualitative investigation, followed by quantitative explorations of symptom clusters and their associated features.