What does arthritis feel like?

Whether you’re keen to learn how to support a loved on living with arthritis, or have recently been experiencing some signs yourself, in this guide, we’ll run through the symptoms of arthritis, what the condition can feel like, and how it progresses. 

Arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation and pain in the joints. There are around 100 different forms of arthritis, all of which can cause varying levels of discomfort and make daily activities difficult. Untreated, the pain of arthritis can really reduce your quality of life and cause long-term joint damage, so it’s important to seek the advice of a healthcare professional if you’re worried about joint pain. 

Most types of arthritis fall into one of two categories.

The first is inflammatory arthritis, which is arthritis from disease. It causes the immune system to attack the body’s own joint tissue, with the most common form being Rheumatoid Arthritis. 

Non-inflammatory, often referred to as Osteoarthritis is caused by natural wear and tear of the joints. It can also include post-traumatic arthritis, which can is a type that follows an injury to a joint. 

What inflammatory arthritis pain and discomfort feels Like

Inflammatory arthritis happens when the immune system wrongly tells white blood cells to attack joint tissue. These incorrect messages are usually caused by an autoimmune condition, that changes or disrupts chemicals in the body. 

Theses attacks can cause deformity in joint tissue – making joints weak and painful. 

Because there are many types of inflammatory arthritis, the list of potential symptoms and experiences is extensive. However it most often feels like: 

The usual treatment option will begin with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen) and occasionally, small doses of steroids. 

People with arthritis can find motion exercises to be effective too. These are often focused on specific movements that strengthen the body and keep joints mobile, to minimise feelings of stiffness and fatigue.

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What rheumatoid arthritis pain and discomfort feels like

Rheumatoid Arthritis  is a chronic auto-immune disease that causes joints to become inflamed. It’s the most common type of inflammatory arthritis.

It can begin at any time, but is most common between 30 and 50 years of age. Symptoms aren’t always constant, meaning those living with the conditions will often experience ‘arthritis flare ups’ – periods where the pain is worse or more intense.   

Symptoms can also vary from person to person so it can be difficult to really pin down exactly what Rheumatoid arthritis feels like. However in the majority of cases they are fairly subtle to begin with, and can include: 

While many associate arthritis with joint pain, one of the main symptoms as Rheumatoid arthritis progresses is fatigue and a loss of energy. This is because fighting inflammation takes a lot of energy. This can sometimes lead to additional symptoms such as depression, and poor appetite. 

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis during the mid and later stages can include: 

Like many chronic diseases, there’s no cure for Rheumatoid arthritis, however those living with the condition can manage it with a range of nonsurgical treatments. These can include steroids to ease discomfort, and an anti-rheumatic drug, such as methotrexate. Sometimes called  DMARDs, these drugs help prevent the immune system from overreacting and causing joint inflammation. Active (self-directed) motion such as light aerobics, walking, and gentle joint rotations can also free up movement. 

People with rheumatoid arthritis may be offered surgical treatment if the condition gets too difficult to manage. Depending on the severity of arthritis, surgical options can include removing the inflamed joint lining, fusing a joint together, or replacing it with an artificial joint. 

What osteoarthritis pain feels like

Osteoarthritis is another common type of arthritis. It occurs from gradual wear and tear to the cartilage in joints. Cartilage is important as it cushions the connection between two bones, preventing them from rubbing against each other and providing space for the joint to move easily. However, as we age it can begin to get softer, and the cartilage surfaces flake away – exposing the surface of the bone. It’s this ‘breaking down’ process that causes osteoarthritis pain. 

Osteoarthritis commonly effects ball and socket type joints, such as the shoulder joint, hip or knee. 

Osteoarthritis can feel like: 

Stage one –  A little pain may be felt in the effected area, but often there’s no symptoms at this stage.  

Stage two – The joint will usually start to develop small lumps called osteophytes, and start to feel tender when you put pressure on it. Pain will usually start after a long day of activity or walking too. On the other hand, if the joint doesn’t move for a long time it will likely feel stiff. strength training exercises, physical therapy and bone friendly supplements, such as Glucosamine, Fish Oil, and Turmeric may help manage symptoms. 

Stage three –  Pain and stiffness is likely to become more frequent, and the joint may swell after extended periods of movement. You may also begin to feel a grating, popping or cracking when moving too, due to the damage to the joint cartilage. Over the counter and prescription painkillers are often recommended at this stage.  

Stage four – At this stage the loss of cartilage can cause your range of motion to become extremely limited due to stiffness and increased pain. If osteophytes are present they are likely to have grown and rub within the joint causing sharp and severe pain. this stage usually requires medical treatment to fix the joint damage such as a bone realignment surgery or a joint replacement.  

As mentioned above, over time, joints effected by Osteoarthritis develop osteophytes –also called bone spurs. These bony spurs are smooth lumps that grow on the bone, and are particularly common in the spine, hands, feet, hip, knee and shoulder. 

In many cases you may not notice a bone spur at first, or feel a slight bump near a joint at most. 

However, they can cause problems if they start to rub against a nearby nerve,  bone, or tissue. 

This can feel like: 

When to see a doctor about joint pain

While there is no cure for arthritis, it’s always advisable to see a doctor if you start to experience painful joints. Often, reviewing your medical history for a joint injury, and checking flexibility and signs of swelling will help diagnose osteoarthritis. They may run some blood tests to check for inflammation in the body and rule out other possible causes too. 

If your GP suspects Rheumatoid arthritis, they’ll usually refer you to a rheumatologist for treatment. 

A fast arthritis diagnosis – particularly in cases of rheumatoid arthritis, will allow you to start a treatment that slows down the progression of the condition, rather than simply relieving symptoms. 

You may decide to try some alternative therapies whether your joint pain is arthritis or not. alternative therapies such as yoga, tai chi have been shown to help with pain and can relieve tension and anxiety. 

Another popular therapy is Magnetic pulse therapy, which targets pain with a weak electromagnetic pulse. while the effects of this treatment are largely unproven, some do find it helps reduce discomfort, and many small devices are available to buy online. 

In the later stages of arthritis, you may want to discuss care options with your GP or health professional. If moving around safely is becoming more difficult, a full-time or visiting carer can help with tasks that require flexibility or constant movement, such as hoovering, and getting in and out of the shower. They can also support you keep up with and attend appointments with healthcare professionals, and provide specialist arthritis care focused on improving daily mobility. 

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