Arthritis Explained

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR
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Arthritis is a term that refers to inflammation of the joints and joint disorders. This article will define arthritis. It will also discuss the different types, symptoms, causes, and treatments of the condition.

What is arthritis?

Image of an older female's hands
Leonardo Borges/Stocksy United

The word arthritis means “joint inflammation” but also can refer to other joint disorders.  

The inflammation of arthritis can develop due to an injury or an infection. It is also often inherited.

Joint pain is also a symptom of other medical conditions, such as lupus or fibromyalgia.

There are many different types of arthritis as well as medical conditions that doctors consider arthritis because of how they affect your body.

What are the different types of arthritis?

There are several different types of arthritis and conditions that medical professionals consider arthritis.

  • Ankylosing spondylitis: This is a condition that causes inflammation in the ligaments and joints of the spine.
  • Gout: This condition most often affects the big toe, but it can develop in any joint. 
  • Osteoarthritis or degenerative arthritis: This type typically affects the hips, knees, and fingers. It is sometimes the result of an injury to the joint. It is one of the most common reasons for physical disability in older adults. It is the most common form of arthritis in older adults.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This is an autoimmune disease that most often affects the hand and foot joints. 
  • Psoriatic arthritis: This condition occurs in people with psoriasis and affects the joints, skin, and areas where the tissue connects to the bones.
  • Septic arthritis: This is an inflammation of the joints due to an infection.

Read more about the joints most commonly affected by arthritis.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Symptoms vary from person to person and depend on the type of arthritis.

Some symptoms common to all forms of arthritis include:

  • pain
  • redness or flushed skin
  • heat
  • swelling
  • joints that may become stiff and difficult to move

Other symptoms are often also present, depending on the type of arthritis.

Ankylosing spondylitis symptoms

The most common symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis are stiffness and pain in the lower back or hips.

Symptoms vary from person to person. Other symptoms that may accompany the stiffness and pain include:

  • pain, stiffness, and inflammation in other joints
  • difficulty taking deep breaths if the area around the ribs is affected
  • vision changes and eye pain
  • fatigue
  • decreased appetite
  • weight loss
  • skin rashes
  • abdominal pain
  • loose bowel movements

Osteoarthritis symptoms

Symptoms specific to osteoarthritis include:

  • a crunching feeling in the joints
  • the sound of bone rubbing on bone
  • small, bony knobs on the finger joints
  • joint pain
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • stiffness when getting out of bed

This type of arthritis does not always cause pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

RA is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body’s immune system is attacking healthy cells. Inflammation in the lining of the joint leads to damage to the joint. This type of arthritis occurs on both sides of your body.

The most common symptoms of RA are typically seen in more than one joint and include:

  • pain or aching
  • stiffness
  • tenderness and swelling
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • weakness

Fibromyalgia symptoms

Fibromyalgia is not a form of arthritis. However, it often co-occurs with different types of arthritis. Some may also confuse fibromyalgia for arthritis, as it shares many of the same symptoms.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • pain and stiffness all over your body
  • fatigue
  • sleep issues
  • depression and anxiety
  • issues with memory, thinking, and concentration
  • headaches, including migraine
  • tingling and numbness in hands or feet
  • digestive issues

Lupus symptoms

Lupus is not a form of arthritis. However, one of the most common symptoms of lupus is arthralgia, which is joint pain. Because arthralgia and arthritis symptoms are similar, many people group them together.

Symptoms of lupus include:

  • extreme fatigue
  • pain and swelling in your joints
  • swelling in your hands, feet, or around your eyes
  • headaches
  • low grade fever
  • rashes
  • lymph node swelling
  • mouth ulcers
  • sensitivity to light, especially sunlight or fluorescent lights
  • chest pain when taking deep breaths

Symptoms of lupus often come and go. They may also change as time goes on.

Septic arthritis symptoms

Septic arthritis is the result of an infection. Symptoms include:

  • warmth and limited movement in the joint
  • limpness in the joint
  • rapid heart rate
  • fever
  • decreased appetite

What causes arthritis?

The cause of arthritis depends on the type. Causes of arthritis include:

  • genetics
  • infections
  • injuries
  • autoimmune responses
  • aging

What are the risk factors for arthritis?

Risk factors of arthritis include:

  • family history
  • age
  • overweight or obesity
  • the type of work you do
  • smoking

Reducing your risk of arthritis

There is no way to fully prevent arthritis.

However, you can typically lower your risk for arthritis by following these tips:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Avoid injuries by wearing proper shoes and using safe exercise equipment.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a moderate weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene.

Click here to read about six foods to avoid with arthritis.

How do doctors diagnose arthritis?

In order to diagnose arthritis, your doctor will:

  • ask you questions about your symptoms
  • perform a physical exam
  • order X-rays, ultrasounds, or an MRI scan
  • draw blood for testing

What does arthritis look like on an X-ray?

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This is how arthritis may look on an x-ray

ChooChin/Shutterstock

Blood tests to diagnose arthritis

If your doctor suspects your arthritis is due to an infection, they may want to send the synovial fluid from the joint for testing.

Other blood tests your doctor may want to run include:

  • RA blood tests for rheumatoid factor
  • cyclic citrullinated peptide
  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate
  • C-reactive protein
  • antinuclear antibody
  • uric acid

What are the treatments for arthritis?

Treatment for arthritis depends on the type you are experiencing.

Common treatments for arthritis

Some common treatments include:

  • oral anti-inflammatory medication
  • creams or lotions for pain and inflammation
  • medications to slow the progression of the arthritis 
  • surgery for severe joint damage, such as a joint replacement
  • exercise to reduce the stiffness and pain in your joints
  • heat and cold
  • splints and braces for the weakened joints
  • relaxation therapy
  • assistive devices, such as canes, to reduce pressure on the joints
  • losing weight or maintaining a moderate weight

Osteoarthritis treatment

Treatments specific to osteoarthritis include:

  • exercise
  • weight management
  • braces for affected joints

Rheumatoid arthritis treatment

Treatments specific to RA include:

  • medications
  • surgery to repair or replace the joint
  • complementary therapies

Septic arthritis treatment

If you have septic arthritis, your doctor will prescribe IV antibiotics and immobilization of the joint. Your doctor may also need to remove fluid or debride the joint to clean out the infection.

If the infection is the result of a prosthetic joint, you may need to replace it.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more questions people asked about arthritis. The answers have been reviewed by Dr. Nancy Carterton, M.D.

What kind of doctor treats arthritis?

Your primary care doctor can often treat arthritis. Sometimes, you may require a specialist called a rheumatologist or an orthopedic surgeon if you need a joint replacement.

Why does arthritis hurt more at night?

Many people feel that their arthritis pain is worse at night.

This is due to several possible reasons:

  • Anti-inflammatory hormones are lower at night.
  • Higher levels of melatonin and prolactin at night lead to pro-inflammatory cytokines.
  • Fewer distractions at night give you more time to think about the pain and discomfort of arthritis.
  • Lying in bed in one position for too long can lead to stiffness and pain in the joint.

Summary

Arthritis is a term that refers to a variety of conditions characterized by inflammation, pain, and stiffness in the joints. It is typically the result of an injury, an infection, or aging. It is also commonly a symptom of another condition, such as lupus or fibromyalgia.

Treatments differ depending on the type and cause of arthritis.

If you are experiencing symptoms of arthritis or one of its related conditions, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR
Last Review Date: 2022 May 31
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.