What does arthritis pain look like?

Are you wondering if the pain and stiffness in your hips, knees or fingers are caused by arthritis? See how you and your doctor can decide.

Hardly anyone escapes the annoyance of occasional aches and pains, especially as they get older. 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 symptoms related to the joint. “Pain involving joints – knees, hips, wrists – indicates that the problem is arthritis,” explains Andrew D. Ruthberg, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the rheumatology division 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 are caused by arthritis or something else? While joint pain and stiffness are the most common terms used to describe arthritis, the warning signs are quite specific. Here’s what you need to know to get the correct diagnosis – and the best treatment.

What is osteoarthritis pain?

Pain is pain, right? It just hurts. But for your doctor to find out if joint pain originates from osteoarthritis, which develops as cartilage wears out, you need to be specific about when the pain occurs, how bad it is and how it is affecting you.

Here are some common signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis that can help you better identify and describe your pain to your doctor:

  • Pain that hurts deeply in the joint
  • Pain that feels better with rest
  • Pain that is not noticeable in the morning, but worsens throughout the day
  • Pain radiating in your buttocks, thighs or groin
  • Joint pain that affects your posture and gait and can cause lameness
  • Pain that occurs after using the joint
  • Swelling in the joint
  • Not being able to move the joint, as usual
  • Feeling a feeling of bones scraping or picking up something when moving the joint
  • Pain during certain activities, such as getting up from a sitting position or using stairs
  • Pain that interferes with work, daily activities and exercise
  • Pain that increases with rainy weather
  • Joint stiffness first thing in the morning that improves over time
  • Stiffness after resting the joint

What is pain and discomfort in rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis can be like the old saying “box of chocolates” – 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 at the age of 23. “Sometimes it feels like it’s burning, other times it feels throbbing – throbbing so hard that you can’t think of anything else,” explains Stewart. “There are times when I almost considered wanting to cut off a foot or hand, the pain is so excruciating.”

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But there are also good days when the pain seems to subside. “When I feel good, I practice yoga, run and make life as if I don’t know what RA is,” she adds.

Symptoms of RA usually include more than joint pain

Rheumatoid arthritis has many symptoms that you may not associate with arthritis pain. These may include:

  • Joint pain that occurs on both sides of the body, such as feet, ankles, wrists, or fingers
  • Significant morning stiffness that persists for at least an hour
  • Sore muscles throughout the body
  • Weak muscles
  • Feeling tired or depressed
  • Losing weight and not having much appetite
  • Mild fever
  • Swelling of the glands
  • Joint pain that worsens after sitting for a long time
  • Pain that will ease for periods, then get significantly worse, rather than consistent pain
  • Heat and pain in the joints

Describing painful symptoms for your doctor

To determine if your pain is caused by 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 of 1 (almost no pain) to 10 (unbearable pain).

Before talking to your doctor, think of 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:

  • Throbbing
  • Hurting
  • Sharp or shooting
  • Hot or burning
  • Grinding or grating
  • Dull

People with arthritis should keep their doctors informed about their symptoms, and Dr. Ruthberg suggests that family members can often be helpful in tracking information, such as when and how the symptoms started.

Take notes on the frequency, intensity and triggers of pain

Try to keep a diary of how you feel each day, classifying 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 example, make a 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 a fever or rash, which may point to another type of arthritis.

The long-term impact to your health of arthritis varies widely from person to person and by the type and severity of the arthritis. Still, a diagnosis and treatment is important for more than just your physical health – it is necessary for your emotional health as well. “Anxiety and depression can occur with almost any chronic illness; arthritis is no exception, ”says Ruthberg. So, if you are suffering from pain, consult your doctor to find out the source – and the solution


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