Signs and Symptoms of Arthritis

Arthritis X-ray
Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. This colored X-ray shows the hands of an 81 year old female patient with rheumatoid arthritis. Credit: Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of joint pain. It occurs when joints become inflamed, leading to symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, reduced range of motion, redness, and instability. There are many types of arthritis, including inflammatory and non-inflammatory, with different causes. Symptoms of arthritis may affect joints in the back, ankle, fingers, hands, muscles, neck, or wrists.

Frequent Symptoms

Arthritis pain can be intermittent or persistent and may develop suddenly or gradually. The condition tends to worsen over time, as joints deteriorate. Common symptoms include:

Pain

Joint pain is the symptom that drives most people with arthritis to initially seek medical care. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the almost 55 million adults who have arthritis in the United States, almost a third of women and close to a quarter of men experience severe joint pain.

The characteristics of arthritis pain can vary depending on the type and the severity of the condition.

  • Achiness in joints that worsens with activity and dissipate with rest
  • Worsening of pain in relatively cold temperatures and in response to changes in barometric pressure (temperatures moving either up or down) which scientists theorize can cause joints to expand
  • Worsening of pain with increased mental stress that can set off the body's inflammatory response
  • Pain upon arising in the morning, which then subsides after about an hour
  • Tenderness to the touch (which means pressing around the joint elicits pain)

Rating Arthritis Pain

Severe joint pain: 7 or higher on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (as bad as it can be)

Persistent pain: Pain of any severity on most or all days in the past 3 months

Weight gain, which increases pressure on joints, and certain repetitive movements can exacerbate pain (as well as being among the causes of arthritis for some people).

Swelling

Swelling of a joint can occur in many conditions, but the most common cause of joint swelling is arthritis. The second most common cause is an injury to the joint. If no injury has occurred, it is likely swelling is due to arthritis. Blood tests may help determine the cause.

Stiffness

People who have arthritis almost always feel stiffness and decreased range of motion in affected joints. Stiffness usually is worse in the morning or after long periods of sitting in one position.

Stiff joints tend to loosen up with activity, as movement causes the synovial fluid that builds up around them to redistribute and allow them to move more freely.

Changes in Appearance

As joint cartilage is worn away by arthritis, the extremity may take on a deformed appearance. Just as if the tread is worn off your car tires, if joint cartilage deteriorates enough, the joint may take on an angled appearance. This is often seen in the hands as crooked fingers. In the knee joint, people with arthritis may develop a knock-kneed or bow-legged appearance.

Arthritis can cause the formation of pockets of fluid (mucous cysts) or bone spurs. Cysts and some types of bone spurs are felt as knobby protuberances around the joint. They may or may not be sensitive to the touch, but they do give a lumpy appearance to the joint. Most people notice these on the small joints of the fingers, although they can occur throughout the body.

Grinding

As joint cartilage is worn away, the smooth lining covering the rough bone is lost. When the bone is exposed, the joint may not move smoothly. You may feel or even hear the bones grinding against each other.

Warmth and Redness

Inflammation can cause joints to appear reddish in color and feel warm to the touch due to increased flow of blood. These symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor because they also can be symptoms of a joint infection.

Complications

If arthritis progresses unchecked, it can eventually affect your ability to engage in tasks of daily living, especially when it affects your hands, wrists, shoulders, or knees. If you develop arthritis of the knees and hips, it may alter your gait and prevent you from walking or sitting comfortably. Limbs can become twisted and deformed. People with rheumatoid arthritis can develop nodules on the skin, eye problems, heart and blood vessel disease, and lung problems. Chronic health problems can also lead to depression. 

When to See a Doctor

Arthritis that interferes with your quality of life in any way—whether from pain or loss of range of motion or both—should, and can, be treated. See your doctor or an orthopedic specialist if you:

  • Experience symptoms for three days or more in a row
  • Have several episodes of symptoms within a month
  • Find yourself avoiding normal activities
  • Do not get relief with rest, OTC pain medication, and other conservative measures
  • Notice changes in symptoms that are unusual—for example, a stiff joint that normally improves after 15 minutes of exercise becomes swollen and red-hot

A Word From Verywell

Although arthritis is a progressive disease, rest assured there are steps you can take to prevent the condition from worsening. Most people who visit an orthopedic doctor don't need surgery to improve their condition but can manage symptoms with a treatment plan that might include physical therapy, a new exercise regimen, and diet changes. Arthritis doesn't have to stop you from living an active life.

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Article Sources
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