Arthritis – how to spot arthritis symptoms, prevent and treat it

25th November, 2022 • 19 min read

Maybe it’s an overwhelming stiffness in your hips and knees when you get out of bed that lasts well beyond your first coffee of the morning. Or intense pain in your fingers and hands as you type an email at your computer, prepare food, or do gardening. Or perhaps your sex life is stalling because arthritis in your hip is making it difficult to get into certain positions. We’re talking about arthritis, a collection of conditions where you get pain, swelling, stiffness, and inflammation in your joints. And many types of arthritis are conditions that more women have to deal with than men.

“Living with arthritis can be tough. The physical pain and discomfort of your symptoms can have an impact on pretty much every area of your life. Your sleep can be affected, your mood, how you feel about your body, your relationships, your work life,” says

Dr. Ann Nainan
, family doctor and Healthily expert.

“You can reduce your chances of getting some types of arthritis by staying active, sticking to a healthy weight, and eating a balanced diet,” says Dr. Ann.

“But if you do get an arthritis diagnosis, understanding your condition is key to feeling your best and living a healthy life.”

Arthritis symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms on a regular basis you should see your doctor – because you may have one of the many kinds of arthritis that can affect your joints:

  • joint pain, tenderness, and stiffness
  • inflammation in and around your joints
  • difficulty moving your joints
  • warm, red skin over any affected joints
  • weakness and muscle wasting

Who is most likely to get arthritis?

In the US, 1 in 4 adults has arthritis – that’s about 58.5 million people.

Arthritis is often seen as an older person’s condition and it’s true that your risk for many types of arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis, goes up with age. That’s because your bones, joints, and muscles change with age. Your bones can lose structure, and your ligaments and tendons can become stiffer and this, along with other risk factors, can make arthritis more likely for you.

That said, it’s possible for arthritis to affect people at any age, even children.

Most types of arthritis are more common in women. In the US 23.5% of women have arthritis compared with 18.1% of men. In the UK a 2021 report found that 35% of women have a musculoskeletal condition like arthritis, compared with 28% of men.

But there are exceptions and some types of arthritis are more common in men, so read on below.

What are the different types of arthritis – and the risk factors?

Did you know that arthritis isn’t a single condition? It’s an umbrella term for more than 100 conditions that affect your joints or the tissues around your joints. Here are the most common kinds of arthritis and what you need to know about the risk factors that make you more likely to get them.

Osteoarthritis

The most common type of arthritis – it affects over 32.5 million adults in the US – it’s sometimes known as ‘wear and tear’ arthritis. Arthritis knee pain, arthritis hip pain, arthritis back pain, and arthritis in hands are most likely with

osteoarthritis
.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • women: especially if you’re over the age of 50. Osteoarthritis of the hip is twice as common in women as it is in men. Experts aren’t exactly sure why more women get osteoarthritis but hormones might play a part. Osteoarthritis can be more likely after menopause when your estrogen levels decrease – some experts believe that estrogen can help prevent cartilage inflammation and damage. Meanwhile, menopause weight gain can put stress on your joints and potentially lead to osteoarthritis. But more research is needed on the menopause-arthritis connection

  • people who are overweight or obese: that’s because extra weight puts extra stress on your joints, particularly on your hips and knees. Being obese increases your risk of getting knee osteoarthritis by 3 times

  • those with a family history: osteoarthritis can be more likely if others in your family have it, too. Scientists don’t know exactly why and studies haven’t found a single gene that’s responsible

  • people with joint injuries: if you get a joint injury or you have a job that involves bending your knees a lot, this can put stress on your joints and potentially lead to osteoarthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

A long-term, autoimmune condition where your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your joints, causing inflammation.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • women:

    rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
    is 2-4 times more likely to affect women than men and it usually starts from the age of 30-60

  • people with autoimmune conditions: many types of inflammatory arthritis, such as RA, are due to autoimmune disease – and autoimmune diseases in general, tend to affect more women. But it’s not clear why

  • smokers: studies show that smoking 1-7 cigarettes a day significantly increases your risk of getting RA

Psoriatic arthritis

Around 1 in 3 people with the skin condition

psoriasis
also develop
psoriatic arthritis.

This can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in any joint – most likely your knees, ankles, hands, and feet.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • those with a family history: about 40% of people with psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis have family members with those conditions

  • people with infections: psoriatic arthritis is more common in people who have

    human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

  • people with joint injuries: if you have psoriasis and you get an injury to your joint, this stress can lead to psoriatic arthritis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS)

A type of arthritis that affects the joints around your spine. In

AS
, new bits of bone grow in your spine which leads to pain and stiffness.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • men: AS is more common in men than women and it usually takes hold between the ages of 20 and 30

  • people with a particular gene: research shows that more than 9 out of 10 people with AS carry a gene called HLA-B27. If you have this gene you won’t definitely get AS but it seems to make it more likely

Gout

This causes painful swelling in your joints – usually your big toe but gout can also affect other joints in your body. It happens when there’s too much urate, or uric acid, in your body.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • men: gout is more common in men, especially as they get older

  • being overweight: if you’re overweight, your levels of uric acid can rise

  • drinking alcohol: again, alcohol – particularly beer – can increase your uric acid levels

  • women who’ve been through the menopause

  • people taking certain medications: these include diuretics (water tablets) and ACE inhibitors, both for high blood pressure

  • having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, kidney problems or diabetes: gout can also put you at risk of developing these conditions so if you're diagnosed with gout, your doctor may recommend screening you for other associated conditions on a regular basis

  • having surgery or an injury to a joint

Enteropathic arthritis (EnA)

Another type of long-term arthritis which can happen if you have

inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Around 1 in 5 people with these conditions will develop EnA

Who is more likely to get it?

  • people with a particular gene: as with ankylosing spondylitis, there seems to be a link with the gene, HLA-B27

Reactive arthritis

This usually happens if you’ve had an infection, particularly a

sexually-transmitted infection (STI)
or
food poisoning
. The redness and swelling in your joints usually go away within a few months.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • men: particularly those aged between 20 and 40

  • people with the HLA-B27 gene: as with AS and EnA, people who have this particular gene are much more likely to get reactive arthritis than those who don’t – it’s not clear why

Secondary arthritis

You might develop this type of arthritis after a joint injury and sometimes it can happen years later.

Who is more likely to get it?

  • younger people: because this type of arthritis can come on after an accident or a sports injury, it’s more common in children, teenagers and young people than it is in adults

How to prevent arthritis

Arthritis in your later years definitely isn’t inevitable – and while it may not be possible to completely prevent certain types of arthritis, there are some ways in which you can reduce your risk:

  • it’s never too late to stop smoking. Read our article on

    stop-smoking treatments

  • try to keep to a healthy weight or take steps to lose weight if you need to. Find out more in our self-care for arthritis article

  • pick the right exercise. Activities like running and weight training can put too much strain on your joints. Instead, to reduce your risk for osteoarthritis, stick to low-impact exercises such as swimming or cycling

What does arthritis feel like?

Here’s what people say about living with different types of arthritis:

  • rheumatoid arthritis “feels like someone drilling on your joints”

  • ankylosing spondylitis can feel like having the flu. One person says: “Your whole body is stiff and sore, places you didn’t even know you had are aching, and it takes a lot of effort just to get out of bed much less do anything else”

  • psoriatic arthritis feels “like having the world’s worst hangover”

You may also wonder how arthritis looks. It can sometimes lead to visible changes in how your affected joints look. Your joint may look swollen with bony prominences.

Knowing your arthritis triggers

Certain things known as triggers can lead to a flare in your arthritis. A flare is a time when your condition is worse or your symptoms ramp up, despite taking your usual medications.

Your triggers will depend on what type of arthritis you have – here are the most common:

  • overdoing an activity or trauma to your joint: this can happen for osteoarthritis and also for gout, for instance, if you stub your big toe

  • weather: if you have osteoarthritis you might find that changes in the weather make your pain worse. This can particularly be the case when the atmospheric pressure is falling – i.e. before it rains. Other people with arthritis find that cold weather ramps up their symptoms. If that sounds familiar, you may find that you need layers in winter. Hot water bottles, electric blankets, and hot drinks may all help. Read more about arthritis and cold weather

  • stress: when you’re stressed – whether it’s a work deadline or a family problem – your body responds by quickening your heart rate, your breathing becomes faster, and your muscles tense. That’s fine for a short time but if you’re constantly in this ‘fight or flight’ mode, increased muscle tension can ramp up your arthritis pain. While you can’t avoid stress, you can learn to manage it with techniques such as

    mindfulness meditation

  • smoking: some studies have shown that cigarette smoking can lead to worse symptoms in both osteoarthritis and RA. One possible reason is that toxins from cigarettes could damage your cartilage

Read more about self-care for arthritis.

How a pharmacist can help

If you know you have arthritis, or if you’re waiting for a diagnosis, you can get the following from your pharmacist to help ease your symptoms:

  • painkillers: over-the-counter paracetamol can help ease mild to moderate pain you get in your joints

  • ibuprofen gel: a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which can help with pain and inflammation when you rub it on your joints – particularly if you have arthritis in hands or knees are affected

  • oral NSAIDs such as ibuprofen: these can help deal with pain and inflammation. Talk to your pharmacist about whether these are safe for you

  • hot water bottle: Or a heated pad to help soothe painful joints

When to see a doctor

It’s normal to have aches and pains occasionally. But you should make an appointment with your doctor if you have any of the

arthritis symptoms mentioned above
, and if:

  • your symptoms don’t go away after a day or 2
  • symptoms are interfering with your day-to-day activities
  • symptoms are getting worse
  • you have a red, very swollen or very painful joint
  • you have a painful joint and a fever
  • your joint pain started after an injury

“To get the most out of your appointment, it’s a good idea to keep a diary of your symptoms, including how long they last, when they happen and if you’ve noticed any triggers for your symptoms,” says Dr. Adiele Hoffman, family doctor and Healthily expert. “It’s important to know that the earlier you get a diagnosis and start the right treatment, the better able you’ll be able to manage your condition and live the life you want.”

You could also try using our

Smart Symptom Checker
for your pain – it can help you to work out your next steps.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

It can take time to get the right arthritis diagnosis. Because there are more than 100 different types of arthritis, some conditions can share similar symptoms – so you might need a few different tests to work out which you have.

When you first see your doctor, they may ask about your symptoms, your general health, lifestyle, and family history. Depending on the outcome of those, you can also expect to have:

Physical exam

Your doctor may:

  • look at your affected joints to check for signs of swelling, tenderness, warmth, and/or redness
  • move your joints to see how they move

You may then have:

Imaging tests

These are usually x-rays to look for signs of joint distress. Sometimes you might have an MRI or ultrasound instead of an x-ray.

Blood tests

You don’t always need a blood test for all types of arthritis, but it can confirm or exclude some types of inflammatory arthritis or look for high uric acid levels if you are getting recurrent gout. If your doctor suspects RA, blood tests may include those which look for inflammation in your body. Find out more about blood tests used to diagnose RA.

Other lab tests

These may include:

  • skin biopsy: Where your doctor removes a small piece of skin and it’s tested in a lab. A skin biopsy can help work out if you may have psoriatic arthritis

  • joint fluid test: This can help to look for signs of certain types of arthritis including infection and gout – your doctor removes a small amount of fluid from your joint to see if there’s any bacteria or uric acid

What are the treatments for arthritis?

There’s no cure for arthritis but treatments have improved a lot over the years.

Your treatment plan will most likely be all about relieving your symptoms and improving your joint function. You might need to try different treatments, or combinations of treatments, before finding what works best for you. Your doctor will help you come up with the right treatment plan.

Medication

If

medications from your pharmacist
don’t bring you relief, your doctor may prescribe you medication depending on your diagnosis:

  • codeine: a very strong painkiller which can help to relieve intense pain

  • capsaicin cream: this is a substance found in chili peppers and it works by blocking the nerves that send pain messages. Using a capsaicin cream on your affected joints may bring you pain relief especially if it’s your hands or knees that are affected

  • stronger NSAIDs: such as naproxen or celecoxib for RA or gout

  • colchicine: a medication used for gout if NSAIDs can’t be used or don’t work well

If the drug treatments above don’t work for you, your doctor may refer you for more specialized treatment which could include:

  • steroids
    : these drugs can reduce inflammation and pain and work to slow down damage to your joints. You can take steroids either as pills or you might have a steroid injection into the painful joint

  • disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): these are a group of drugs that are often used if you have RA. DMARDs work to suppress your body’s immune and/or inflammatory systems and they can slow the progress of your RA and save your joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Because they suppress your immune system, taking them means you’re more at risk of getting infections. They can also treat other types of inflammatory arthritis such as

    ankylosing spondylitis
    and
    psoriatic arthritis

Surgery

You won’t necessarily need surgery for arthritis, but it may help to reduce your pain and improve your mobility. Common surgery types include:

  • joint replacement: this is where your affected joint is removed and replaced with an artificial joint made of plastics and metal. This is most commonly done to replace

    hips
    and
    knees

  • joint fusion: if joint replacement isn’t suitable for you, it may be that you can have an operation to fuse your joint in a permanent position. Your joint will be stronger and less painful but you won’t be able to move it anymore. Joint fusion can be used for smaller joints such as your wrist, ankle, fingers or toes

  • joint realignment: you may have this if you’re younger and active, rather than replacing your joint entirely. Your bones and other joint structures are realigned which have become out of kilter if you’ve had osteoarthritis for a long time

Therapies

Different physical therapies can be helpful for some types of arthritis and they may be used after surgery to help your joints heal and get stronger. Therapies include:

  • hydrotherapy: also called aquatic therapy, this is where you do special exercises in a pool heated to 33-36C. It’s not like aqua aerobics – think slow, controlled movements. Hydrotherapy can also help with the symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and osteoarthritis

  • occupational therapy: an occupational therapist (OT) can help you get back to, or carry on with, your usual activities at home, at work, and when you’re out and about. Your OT can help you make adjustments to how you perform tasks such as getting in and out of bed or when you’re cooking.You could consider seeing an OT as soon as you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, but if your symptoms are mild or well-controlled then you may not need one initially

  • physical therapy: a physical therapist can help you get active again if you’ve stopped because of arthritis, or they can help with keeping you active in your home and work life by helping build your strength and stamina. A physical therapist can work out a program of exercise and activity that’s right for you

What are the long-term effects of arthritis?

When you have arthritis, this may put you at greater risk of developing other conditions, especially if your arthritis isn’t controlled well. That’s why it’s really important to get a diagnosis and start treatment as soon as you can.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

You may be at greater risk for:

  • carpal tunnel syndrome
    : this is when there’s compression in the nerve that controls movement and sensation in part of your hand. The result is tingling, numbness, or pain in your thumb, index, and middle fingers and part of your hand

  • more inflammation: because RA is an inflammatory condition, it can lead to inflammation in other parts of your body such as your lungs and heart. But the sooner you start treatment for RA, the less likely you are to get inflammation elsewhere

  • joint damage: such as damage to your bones, cartilage and tendons

  • cardiovascular disease (CVD)
    : it’s not exactly clear why people with RA are more at risk of conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels. Many self-care steps for managing your arthritis – such as eating a balanced diet – will help dial down your risk for CVD

  • cervical myelopathy: around 2.5% of people with RA will get this condition which leads to dislocation of your joints at the top of your spine. This puts pressure on your spinal cord and needs to be treated urgently

Osteoarthritis

Because osteoporosis can result in chronic pain, it may lead to

depression
or
sleep problems
.

Psoriatic arthritis

You may be at increased risk of:

  • arthritis mutilans: a rarer, more severe, disabling type of arthritis

  • hypertension: AKA

    high blood pressure

  • metabolic syndrome
    : the medical name for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity

  • diabetes

  • cardiovascular disease (CVD): see above

Gout

You may be at increased risk of:

  • chronic gout: this is rare but if you get very frequent attacks of gout, it can damage your joints

  • tophi: these are tiny white lumps that appear under your skin – usually on your ears, fingers or elbows. These lumps are urate crystals and they can be painful

  • kidney stones
    : this can happen if your uric acid levels are very high so you’ll need treatment to reduce your levels

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS)

You may be at increased risk of:

  • joint damage: see above

  • iritis (or anterior uveitis): an eye condition associated with AS where your eye may become red, painful and sensitive to light. You should see your doctor straight away if you have AS and you think you may have developed iritis

  • osteoporosis
    and spinal fractures: a condition where your bones become weak and brittle, and more likely to break

  • cardiovascular disease (CVD): see above

Watch this space – CBD for arthritis pain

You might be wondering about CBD cream for arthritis pain. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound from cannabis plants and it’s popular with people with arthritis as a way to manage pain. Right now, there aren’t enough good quality scientific studies to recommend using it for relief from pain and inflammation. Always speak to your doctor first before using any CBD product for your arthritis.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.