Hardly anyone escapes the annoyance of occasional aches and pains, especially as they age. But persistent joint pain and stiffness can be signs of arthritis, which affects more than 54.4 million American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Joint Pain Is a Common Denominator
Arthritis can be separated into two types: inflammatory, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), versus mechanical disease, such as osteoarthritis. Both are often characterized by joint-related symptoms. “Pain involving joints — knees, hips, wrists — indicates the problem is arthritis,” explains Andrew D. Ruthberg, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at Rush Medical College in Chicago. Back pain, neck pain, and joint swelling are also markers of arthritis.
Diagnosing the Different Types of Arthritis
So how do you know if your symptoms arecaused by arthritis or something else? While joint pain and stiffness are the most common terms used to describe arthritis, the warning signs are pretty specific. Here's what you need to know to get the right diagnosis — and the best treatment.
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What Osteoarthritis Pain Feels Like
Pain is pain, right? It just plain hurts. But for your doctor to figure out whether your joint pain stems from osteoarthritis, which develops as cartilage wears away, you’ll need to be specific about when the pain occurs, how bad it is, and the ways it's affecting you.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis that may help you identifyand better describe your pain to your doctor:
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Pain that aches deep into the joint
Pain that feels better with rest
Pain that isn't noticeable in the morning but gets worse throughout the day
Pain that radiates into your buttocks, thighs, or groin
Joint pain that affects your posture and gait and may cause limping
Pain that occurs after using the joint
Swelling in the joint
Not being able to move the joint as much as usual
Feeling a sensation of bones grating or catching on something when moving the joint
Pain during certain activities, like standing from a seated position or using stairs
Pain that interferes with work, daily activities, and exercise
Pain that increaseswith rainy weather
Joint stiffness first thing in the morning that improves with time
Stiffness after resting the joint
What Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain and Discomfort Feels Like
Rheumatoid arthritis can be like the old “box of chocolates” adage — you never know what you’re going to get, according to blogger Katie Stewart, 36, of Hermosa Beach, California. Stewart was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she 23 years old. “Sometimes it feels like burning, other times it feels like throbbing — throbbing so bad that you can't think about anything else,” Stewart explains. “There are times I've almost considered wanting to cut off a foot or a hand, the pain is so excruciating.”
But there are also good days when the pain seems to ebb. “When I feel good, I do yoga, run, and go about life like I don't know what RA is,” she adds.
RA Symptoms Often Include More Than Joint Pain
Rheumatoid arthritis has many symptoms that you might not associate with arthritis pain. These can include:
Joint pain that occurs on both sides of the body, such as both feet, ankles, wrists, or fingers
Significant stiffness in the morning that persists for at least an hour
Aching muscles all over the body
Feeling tired or depressed
Losing weight and not having much appetite
Swelling of glands
Joint pain that gets worse after sitting for a long time
Pain that will ease for periods, then get significantly worse, rather than consistent pain
Heat and soreness in the joints
Describing Painful Symptoms to Your Doctor
To determine whether your pain is due to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or another type of arthritis, your doctor will ask you many questions about your pain, how it affects your life and body, when it occurs, and how bad it gets. Your doctor may ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 (almost no pain) to 10 (unbearable pain).
Before you speak with your doctor, think about the words you want to use to describe your joint pain. Here are some terms that will help your doctor get the full picture. Choose the ones that best describe how your arthritis pain feels:
Sharp or shooting
Hot or burning
Grinding or grating
People with arthritis shouldkeep their doctors informed of their symptoms, and Dr. Ruthberg suggests that family members can often be helpful in keeping up with information, such as when and how symptoms began.
Take Notes About Pain Frequency, Intensity, and Triggers
Try keeping a diary of how you feel each day, rating your pain at different times and after different activities. Record what makes your pain feel better, and what makes it worse. Also share with your doctor what you can and cannot do because of your pain. For instance, make note of whether you can drive a car comfortably but have difficulty holding a fork. Your doctor will also want to know about any other symptoms you are experiencing, such as fever or a skin rash, which could point to another kind of arthritis.
The long-term impact to your health from arthritis varies widely from person to person and by the type and severity of arthritis. Still, a diagnosis and treatment is important for more than just your physical health — it’s necessary for your emotional health, too. “Anxiety and depression can occur with almost any chronic illness; arthritis is no exception,” Ruthberg says. So, if you’re struggling with pain, see your doctor to figure out the source — and the solution.