Why You Should Know Your Type of Arthritis

Understanding Your Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

It's not uncommon to hear people say "I have arthritis." Generally speaking, they are correct, but more accurately, they have a specific type of arthritis. There are over 100 types of arthritis. Most of the 100 types are rare diseases. You can count on two hands the types you have probably heard of at all and on two fingers the ones most referred to and considered most common: (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis).

Doctor viewing X-ray of hand on digital tablet
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Symptoms That Suggest Arthritis

People who are experiencing early, vague symptoms related to joint pain, joint stiffness, joint swelling, or limited range of motion may suspect arthritis. But arthritis symptoms, especially early arthritis symptoms, can overlap with other conditions.

It is important to have a healthcare provider assess your symptoms and accurately diagnose your condition. Before x-rays are taken or blood tests are ordered, you may not know if you are dealing with an acute joint injury or a chronic disease.

To determine the cause of your symptoms, your healthcare provider must take your medical history, perform a physical examination, and order diagnostic tests. While the pattern of symptoms will give clues, symptoms alone do not formulate a diagnosis.

The Importance of Diagnosing the Right Condition

When it comes to initial symptoms, people tend to self-treat before consulting a healthcare provider. Perhaps no harm comes from taking a stab at self-treatment, but there's likely no significant benefit either. Typically, people try common over-the-counter treatments, hoping something will make a difference. Many people who choose to self-treat find that symptoms persist. They realize they are treading water, if not getting worse, without healthcare provider's input. Others continue to self-treat or just live with their symptoms, risking the consequences that come from delaying appropriate treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that while more than 58 million Americans have chronic joint symptoms, many have not been treated by a healthcare provider.

About 1.5 million adults have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Research suggests that those with rheumatoid arthritis, especially older adults, who are under the care of a primary care physician or other healthcare provider instead of a rheumatologist (a specialist in arthritis and rheumatic diseases) may receive less aggressive treatments and have gaps in care.

Few joints may be involved in the initial consultation with a healthcare provider. There may not be much revealed when results come back from blood tests or X-rays. But your healthcare provider will order more extensive tests until a diagnosis can be made.

Early, Disease-Modifying Treatment Brings Best Results

Some types of arthritis are inflammatory, while others are non-inflammatory. Rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis are examples of inflammatory arthritis. Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that has been classified as non-inflammatory (although newer research has suggested there may be an inflammatory process involved with osteoarthritis).

A class of drugs known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are effective for many patients with inflammatory types of arthritis. When DMARDs are indicated, early treatment is essential. The American College of Rheumatology's 2021 guidelines recommend early treatment with DMARDs since patients who received DMARD therapy early tend to have better outcomes than those who delay treatment and the best chance for preventing joint damage.

Researchers are working on the development of disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOADs), too. At this point, there are no osteoarthritis drugs that can slow progression of the disease. Drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and pain medications mostly impact symptoms, not disease progression. When only one or few joints are involved, injections of cortisone or ​​Hyalgan may be used to bring inflammation under control.

Bottom Line

It's important to know your type of arthritis so that you can receive the proper treatment. Early, aggressive treatment is essential for bringing arthritis under control and slowing progression of the disease. Your healthcare provider will guide you to the best treatment option with the goal of controlling symptoms and preventing permanent joint damage. Whether you start with NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), corticosteroids, DMARDs, biologics, or a combination, early treatment is the way to go.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Arthritis: diagnosis, treatment, and steps to take.

  2. Theis KA. Prevalence of arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitation — united states, 2016–2018MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7040a2

  3. National Institutes of Health. Autoimmune diseases of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

  4. Lee J, Chang C, Yung R, Bynum JPW. Provider specialty and the use of disease‐modifying antirheumatic drugs for rheumatoid arthritis among older adults in the 2005‐2016 national ambulatory medical care surveyACR Open Rheumatology. 2022;4(4):332-337. doi:10.1002/acr2.11406

  5. Fraenkel L, Bathon JM, England BR, et al. 2021 American College of Rheumatology Guideline for the Treatment of Rheumatoid ArthritisArthritis Care Res. 2021;73(7):924-939. doi:10.1002/acr.24596

Additional Reading
  • Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. Chapter 2 - Evaluation of the Patient. John J. Klippel. Arthritis Foundation. Thirteenth Edition.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: Early Diagnosis and Treatment. Pages 77-83. John J. Cush MD, Michael E. Weinblatt MD, Arthur Kavanaugh, MD. Third Edition. Professional Communications Inc. Copyright 2010.