What Does Arthritis Actually Feel Like?

x-ray showing arthritis in a pair of hands

According to the CDC, nearly 25% of American adults have some type of arthritis diagnosis. It’s one of the leading causes of chronic joint pain throughout the country. Although it mostly affects adults and seniors, it can occur in people of any age. 

There are different types of arthritis, which can be confusing to differentiate and understand. Pain affects everybody differently, too, so if you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with arthritis, you might be wondering: what does arthritis feel like? What can you expect? And what are the treatment options available?

What is Arthritis? 

In a general blanket statement, “arthritis” means pain or inflammation in the joints. Yes, this is an extremely broad definition, as there are over 100 types of arthritis that exist! No wonder this medical ailment is so misunderstood among the population and health workers alike. 

People of any age can get arthritis. It can be a chronic condition or come and go for short, temporary periods of life. There is no single known cause of arthritis, and the severity of symptoms varies from person to person. 

Although there are so many kinds of arthritis, the overall fact that can be seen in all of them is this: arthritis dramatically affects the mobility and movement of those who have been diagnosed. 

Elderly female patient suffering from arthritis pain in her hand
According to the CDC, an estimated 78.4 million adults will have doctor-diagnosed arthritis by the year 2040.

Two Main Categories of Arthritis

When we’re talking about joint pain, many people jump to assume it has to be some type of arthritis. This might be true, but what does it mean? And how can you know for sure? 

Firstly, never try to diagnose yourself or others based on a few symptoms. If a doctor officially finds that you have some type of arthritis, it’s important to learn all you can about it to manage and treat it. The first step to understanding is knowing which category your diagnosis belongs to.

There are two distinctive “families” of arthritis that can clear up some confusion from the start. These two categories are:

Mechanical: This means the arthritis is a result of the normal breaking down of joints over time. It’s caused by lifelong wear-and-tear where the body, in its aging process, starts experiencing pain in weight-bearing joints or bones. Osteoarthritis is the most common example.

Inflammatory: A type of arthritis that results from chronic inflammation in the body. This can be caused by a temporary or permanent injury or some type of autoimmune disorder. The most common type of inflammatory arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. 

Symptoms of Arthritis

Remember, different types of arthritis will have different symptoms. But some of the major warning signs of this joint disorder. 

Joint Pain 

The joints in one or various parts of the body feel pain. This pain can be ongoing or temporary, mild or unbearable, constant or only felt while moving. 

Limited Mobility

It might be difficult to move as easily or limberly as you once used to. Limited mobility and a decrease in range of motion is a sign that is seen in many arthritis patients. Sometimes they can no longer lift their hands over their head, or have trouble bending over to pick up objects. Other times they cannot even move their neck, grasp silverware, or sit and stand without feeling pain.

Joint Swelling

Inflammation of the joints causes swelling. Affected joints can become swollen, red, and hot. This type of swelling can be slightly uncomfortable or cause severe pain. 

Stiffness

Along with joint issues there comes joint stiffness throughout the body. It’s not always easy to feel relaxed or flexible with arthritis. It can become difficult to move normally if the joints are debilitated.

Joint Damage

With mechanical arthritis most of all, the joints start becoming damaged with more and more wear and tear. Damage can be caused by simple daily activities or excess use. 

Other signs of arthritis can include: 

  • Deep aches and pains in the body
  • Pain that worsens posture or proper form
  • Changes to your gait (the way you walk)
  • Clicking, cracking or popping of the joints
  • Pain felt after using a specific body part normally 
  • Feeling the bones or joints rubbing against each other; “grating”
  • Radiating pain with normal movement 
  • Stiffness in the joints, even after proper use

What Causes Arthritis?

There aren’t any official known causes of arthritis. Additionally, the different forms of arthritis can have varying factors that lead to its development over time. 

Even though there is no sure answer, modern science is starting to research how individual lifestyle, genetics, and adverse experiences contribute to the development of all kinds of arthritis. 

What Does Arthritis Feel Like?

There is no way to answer this question with full clarity. Ask ten different arthritic people to explain to you what their arthritis feels like, and you’ll likely get ten different answers. The bottom line is what arthritis feels like depends on what type of arthritis someone has. 

Most Common Types of Arthritis 

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is perhaps the most common type of arthritis. It’s what most people are likely to automatically think about when they hear the term arthritis. Harvard Health estimates there is a 50/50 chance that someone will experience Osteoarthritis in life

“Osteo” means related to the bones. Therefore, this type of arthritis affects the joints, cartilage, and bones. This “wear-and-tear” is most often seen in people over the age of 50. But it can also affect younger people with preexisting conditions or major injuries. It starts mild but then gradually gets more and more serious over time. 

It causes cartilage– the padding material between our bones– to break down. As you can imagine, this can be super painful. It mostly affects the knees, elbows, hands, and hips, which are joints we all use most often. But it can affect any joint in the body– even small joints like the fingers, spine, and toes.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation of the joints
  • Swelling
  • Throbbing 
  • Tenderness 
  • Discomfort when moving
  • Grinding or popping sounds in the affected joints 

 Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the types of inflammatory arthritis disorders. It’s an autoimmune disorder; “rheumatic” meaning of the soft tissue. This means the body thinks the healthy cells are a threat to the immune system, and therefore attacks them as an unwanted virus or foreign substance. As a result, the immune system gets depleted and the body suffers in physical ways. 

In this case, the joint cells get attacked. This is then what causes RA. Along with physical joint pain and swelling, it can cause fatigue, mood swings, chest pain, and organ problems.

People who have rheumatoid arthritis often feel like they lack energy for daily priorities. Some say that it feels like they have cold or fever symptoms that won’t ever go away. Achy, sore muscles and joints are common with RA. 

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis:

  • Swollen joints
  • Chronic joint pain 
  • Tightness and stiffness that gets worse throughout the day
  • Fatigues
  • Change in appetite
  • Fever symptoms
  • Cycles of change in all RA symptoms (sometimes joint pain goes away then comes back)

Not everyone who has RA feels joint pain. Other side effects can show up in unrelated parts of the body, like:

  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Bone marrow
  • Nerves and blood vessels
  • Lungs
  • Brain

Fibromyalgia 

According to the CDC, about 4 million people in the United States live with a chronic disease called Fibromyalgia. It is a musculoskeletal disorder that causes hypersensitivity to pain receptors in the body, as well as cognitive difficulties, fatigue, and arthritis. 

Fibromyalgia is most often seen in women rather than men. There’s no known cause for it, and although medication can help, treatment is complex. Mainly, lifestyle improvements such as rest, a healthy diet, and gentle exercise can help manage and relieve ongoing flare-ups.

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia:

  • Headaches
  • Extreme fatigue (so tired it hurts)
  • Muscle aches, body aches, joint pain
  • Cramps and stiffness
  • Sensitivity to pain; also to heat, cold, and touch
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Muscle twitching and tension
  • Brain fog, difficulty concentrating (AKA “fibro fog”
  • Digestive issues
  • Increased stress levels or extreme mood swings

Psoriatic Arthritis

Many people know of the skin autoimmune disease called psoriasis. It’s a type of ongoing skin condition that causes flaky, silvery skin atop red bumps and swelling. It’s caused by the immune system attacking healthy skin cells, thinking they’re a threat to the body. 

Psoriatic arthritis is a similar immune disorder. It affects the joints, ligaments, and tendons. Just as people can have topical psoriasis without showing signs of psoriatic arthritis, so can people become diagnosed with the arthritis form of psoriasis without showing any signs of the skin disorder. 

Symptoms of Psoriatic Arthritis:

  • Redness or swelling of the joints
  • Puffy fingers or toes
  • Spinal pain
  • Deformities in the joints that can be seen over time
  • Scaly skin with flare-ups
  • Red eyes or dry eyes
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Weakness 
  • Pain in the tips of fingers or toes 

Ankylosing Spondylitis 

A more rare type of arthritis, Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the spine and mental condition of the individual. It can sometimes begin at birth and be a lifelong disorder, or it can develop at any age. It causes frequent flare-ups of intense pain throughout the spine.

The bones in the spine of someone with AS can become fused. The effects can radiate up into the neck, head, and other parts of the body. It can cause nerve and joint damage, but still most often pains the lower back.

Symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis:

  • Pain in the lower back
  • Change in spinal shape (most often curves forward)
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Depression, anxiety, mood disorders
  • Radial pain throughout the butt, chest, thighs, shoulders, neck, rib cage, and more
  • Difficulty breathing during flare-ups
  • Tenderness in the tailbone or pelvis
  • IBD or IBS (bowel issues)
  • Eye inflammation and dry eyes
  • Soreness in the feet or hands
Physiotherapist working with elderly patient in clinic
Physical therapy can help clients cope with chronic arthritis pain.

Types of Treatment for Arthritis 

Fortunately, there is a lengthy list of treatments that are available in treating all different forms of arthritis. Although treatment will need to be determined by a professional medical provider, there are treatments you can take charge of in daily life to prevent and manage arthritis. Here are some of the most effective treatments for arthritis today. 

Physical Therapy

Some types of physical therapy can help arthritis symptoms improve. Working with a physical therapist who specializes in joint and inflammatory disorders can be helpful. They can guide you through safe and effective exercises to target specific areas of your body that are affected by your type of arthritis. 

With physical therapy, you’ll likely also need another form of treatment alongside it. Treatments like medication, living healthier, and hot or cold therapy can help.

Medications 

Certain medications can relieve arthritis symptoms. Some prescriptions can work at controlling the immune system, in the case of rheumatic arthritis that is caused by an inflammatory disease. 

NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) are easy to access and help relieve inflammation and pain in the body. Some of them are strong and need to be prescribed by a doctor. But most of us are familiar with over-the-counter forms of NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and cold medicine. 

Medications are not a cure for arthritis. Always follow the guidelines of your health care providers. They can offer relief, but should not be depended on for an expected cure.

Holistic Treatment Plan

Holistic meaning “whole”, when it comes to arthritis, focusing on the body, mind, and lifestyle connection as a way to cope with arthritis is useful to many. There is no magic solution to fix chronic arthritis pain, so taking those small steps every day to help manage symptoms can make a big difference. 

Eating healthy foods, making exercise a routine, and weight loss are great places to start. Learn how to protect your joints and muscles so you can avoid further damage and pain. 

Seek out a multidisciplinary approach to treatment, if you can. Chronic pain can take a toll on one’s physical, mental, and family health. Having the medical support you need which addresses all aspects of life and how arthritis affects it is often beneficial. 

Pain Management

Sometimes, the pain is prominent and it can be hard to know what to do for any relief. Seeking a pain management specialist can help you find the tools you need to at least get through the day-to-day without suffering too much pain. Usually, pain relief treatments include multiple types of treatment on a personalized schedule and research-based foundation. 

Helping a Loved One Who Has Arthritis

If you have a family member or loved one with arthritis, it’s important to be sensitive to their needs. As their condition could worsen over time, learning all you can about their specific arthritis helps both you as a caretaker and your loved one as a patient. 

Learn Their Symptoms

Reading about what arthritis feels like can give you a perspective about what they need daily. Along with pain comes mental health changes and threats to the individuals’ well-being. Knowing what their symptoms are and what to expect during a flare-up can prepare you to give the best care you can. 

If You Can’t Care, Support

It isn’t always possible to offer physical or emotional care if you aren’t a professional. If you can’t extend any skills in this arena, at least know how you can support your loved ones while they receive medical care. Listen to them, help them with appointments, and show you care. 

Find a Caregiver

Life gets chaotic and arthritis can impact the family in more ways than one. Finding a caregiver can help maintain or even improve the quality of life for everyone involved. They can help with movement, daily functions, and offer relief to the arthritis patient. 

Whether you have a new arthritis diagnosis or you have a loved one who is starting to need some extra help for theirs, plenty of options are available today. Do your best to find out the details you need to know about arthritis. Set yourself and your family up for the best symptom management you possible can, so life can still be lived to the fullest. 

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