9 Signs of Arthritis (Joint Inflammation Early and Late Signs)

Arthritis is a joint problem that can affect any age group. It tends to be more common as a person gets onlder. The two common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  Osteoarthritis affects about 20 million Americans while rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million people in the United States. These joint diseases impair quality of life and can lead to varying degrees of disability.

Although these common types of arthritis are not curable, it can be effectively treated and managed if diagnosed early. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are chronic conditions – they develop gradually and last for long periods of time, even a lifetime. Other types of arthritis like traumatic arthritis and septic arthritis are usually acute. It arises suddenly, the symptoms are severe and it can resolve on its own or be cured in most instances.

Arthritis is a medical term for joint inflammation. It occurs when the immune system malfunctions (rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis), wear and tear of joint cartilage (osteoarthritis), infection (septic arthritis), injury (traumatic arthritis) and crystal deposits in the joint (gout and pseudogout).

Read more on types of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is a degenerative joint condition with little to no inflammation except during injury and strain to the joint. Therefore some of the typical inflammatory symptoms may not be present in osteoarthritis.

How to Spot Arthritis

There may be little to no obvious symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in the early stages of the disease. The symptoms develop gradually and may initially be mistaken for joint strain or injury. Apart from the signs and symptoms of arthritis discussed below, sometimes there are other signs and symptoms outside of the joint. This is known as extra-articular manifestations.

It may involve the skin, eyes or even internal organs like the eyes. These extra-articular symptoms may vary and is more commonly seen with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, since the abnormal immune response that is responsible for the arthritis is not isolated only to the joints. Arthritis needs to be diagnosed by a medical doctor after thorough examination and investigations as the different types of arthritis may appear similar.

Read more on differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Joint Pain

Joint pain, which is known as arthralgia, is one of the common symptoms of arthritis. Pain is a feature of inflammation and tends to be worse in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis than in osteoarthritis. In RA, pain tends to arise or worsen with movement. It may or may not ease when at rest. However, RA of certain joints may also present with pain at rest and pain that tends to be worse at night (nocturnal pain).

Pain is also present in the other types of arthritis. It tends to be more sudden and severe in septic arthritis and traumatic arthritis which are acute conditions. As inflammation increases, the pain in the joints worsen. Pain is not entirely absent in osteoarthritis (OA). The pain in OA develops gradually, worsens with joint use (movement as well as weight bearing) and eases with rest.

Stiff Joints

Joint stiffness is another common symptoms of arthritis. Although pain may restrict joint mobility, stiffness is not always accompanied by pain. Instead the joints may feel ‘hard’ to move. It may also not flex or extend to the same degree as it normally would. The range of motion gradually reduces over time in rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis until there is almost a complete loss of joint mobility.

The stiffness is due to swelling of the joint tissue due to inflammation or damage of the joint surfaces that occurs over time in OA and RA. Stiffness of the joint may be worse in the morning after a long period of inactivity in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Movement gradually eases the stiffness in RA. With osteoarthritis, the stiffness tends to be worse with physical strain and eases with rest.

Read more on joint stiffness.

Small vs Large Joints

Septic arthritis and traumatic arthritis can affect any joint that becomes infected or injured, respectively. However, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have a predilection for certain joints. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to involve the small joints, like the joints of the fingers. Osteoarthritis mainly involves the large joints like the knee, hip and shoulder joints. Gout usually involves the joint of the big toe while pseudogout is more common in the knee.

Swelling, Redness and Heat

Swelling of the joint along with redness and heat of the overlying skin are other symptoms of inflammation that occurs in arthritis. It is less commonly seen in degenerative joint conditions like osteoarthritis but is prominent in rheumatoid arthritis, septic arthritis and traumatic arthritis. The degree of swelling, redness and heat usually correlates with the severity of pain and tenderness of the joint. These symptoms tend to be severe in flareups of joint conditions like gouty arthritis and pseudogout.

Unusual Joint Sounds

The changes that occur with the joint tissue in arthritis can also give rise to unusual joint sounds. Normally there is no sound that is audible to humans with joint movement. However, in some types of arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis, there may be unusual joint sounds like a rubbing or grating sound during movement. These sounds tend to be more prominent as the condition progresses and there is significant damage of the joint cartilage. A popping sound may also be audible as the joint slips out of its normal articulating position (dislocation).

Nodules and Deformities

Nodules are lumps that form near the joints in rheumatoid arthritis. These lumps are not in the joint but just under th skin. It tends to occur later in rheumatoid arthritis. There may also be lumps in advanced osteoarthritis. These lumps are protrusions of bone from the damaged bone in the joint.

Deformity in arthritis is another late symptom of these joint diseases. It can occur in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The deformity is result of extensive joint damage and the formation of contractures. There is usually extensive joint disability or a complete loss of motion by the time the deformity is present.

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