Arthritis is one of those things you don’t think much about until you actually experience it—and then, you really care about it. But arthritis can be managed with proper treatment, which is why it’s so important to keep early signs of arthritis on your radar.
OK, but asking for a friend here…what is arthritis, again? “On a macro level, arthritis literally means inflammation (-itis) of a joint (artho-),” explains Barbara Bawer, MD, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “A joint is any location where two bones meet.”
Meet the experts: Barbara Bawer, MD, family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center; Timothy Gibson, MD, orthopedic surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Joint Replacement Center at Orange Coast Medical Center; Jeffrey Zarin, MD, orthopedic surgeon at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.
There are actually several types of arthritis, Dr. Bawer points out. But, when people say “arthritis,” they’re usually referring to osteoarthritis. That’s a form of arthritis that causes cartilage (the hard, slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones where they form a joint) to break down, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). This is more common with age and usually impacts the fingers, knees, and hips.
“It’s like the tire treads on your car—they wear out over time,” says Timothy Gibson, MD, orthopedic surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Joint Replacement Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif. “If the cartilage on the ends of the bone starts to get damaged or worn out, it can cause a problem.”
There is no cure for arthritis, but there are things that can slow down the progression of the condition, says Jeffrey Zarin, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. So, it’s a good idea to take action if you notice things are off.
With that in mind, these are the early signs of arthritis you should keep on your radar.
You have joint pain.
This, Dr. Gibson says, is the No.1 sign of arthritis. “Sometimes, it’s just mild after an activity,” he says. “This is due to wearing down of joints and muscle tightness,” Dr. Bawer says. “Cartilage becomes thinner, more dried up, and stiff,” she adds—and that can lead to pain.
Your joint just feels off.
Osteoarthritis can feel different for everyone, but Dr. Zarin says patients will often say that “something doesn’t feel right about the way the joint moves.” Maybe your knee feels a little wonky or your elbow seems like it’s just not moving as smoothly as it should—these can be arthritis signs.
You’re having pain first thing.
Osteoarthritis can cause you to feel pain early in the morning when you get up. “When you sleep, the joints aren’t moving which can make them stiff and dried out,” Dr. Gibson says. “Once you move the joint back and forth a few times, it gets fluid moving in the joint and makes it feel better.”
You feel stiff after you’ve been resting for a while.
Have certain joints that feel a little stiff after you’ve been sitting or just hanging out for a while? Synovial fluid, which is a thick liquid located between the joints that reduces friction between the bones, gets more gelatinous after you’ve been inactive, Dr. Bawer says. It then “normalizes into a thinner liquid with movement,” she says.
You hear or feel a grating sound.
<Shudder>. Having a grating or creaky feeling in a certain joint or actually hearing it can be a sign of arthritis. “This is due to the destruction of cartilage on bones and narrowing of the space between the two bones,” Dr. Bawer says. “Sometimes it hurts; sometimes it doesn't hurt,” Dr. Zarin says.
You have pain in a joint that you injured before.
Yep, you can develop arthritis in that ankle you sprained ages ago. In fact, it’s a risk factor for arthritis. “Trauma to a joint in the past speeds up the wear and tear of the joint and therefore the destruction of cartilage,” Dr. Bawer says. “Pain in a previously injured joint might indicate early osteoarthritis.”
You’re dealing with butt pain.
This is surprisingly common with arthritis in the hips. “The hip is a ball and socket joint that’s in the groin area,” Dr. Zarin says. “It's super common that people feel like they pulled their groin and it turns out it’s arthritis.” The pain may be in the upper butt area or upper and outer thigh, Dr. Bawer says.
You have one-sided joint pain.
While it’s totally possible to have arthritis in two pairs of joints, like both hands or both feet, Dr. Bawer says it’s more common to have it in one or the other. “When people have pain in both wrists or both knees, you start to think about autoimmune diseases,” Dr. Gibson says.
Common Arthritis Treatment Options
Again, there is no cure for arthritis, but there are some treatment options available. Those can include lifestyle factors, the NIAMS says, like:
Exercising to reduce joint pain and stiffness and increase flexibility, muscle strength, and endurance
Managing your weight to reduce stress on your joints
Using braces or orthotics to help stabilize joints
There are some medications to help, NIAMS says, including:
Oral pain relievers
Oral anti-inflammatory medications to treat pain and inflammation
Topical creams, rubs, or sprays
Corticosteroids to fight inflammation
Hyaluronic acid substitutes (viscosupplements) to replace joint lubrication
Selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors for long-term pain control
If you feel like you’re having early signs of arthritis, talk to your doctor. They may want to run some tests to be sure and help you get on a plan make you more comfortable.
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