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Recognizing Early Arthritis Symptoms

Paying Attention to Symptoms Paves Way to Accurate Diagnosis

By

Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Woman with elbow pain
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Early Arthritis Symptoms

Early arthritis symptoms can be vague and confusing, but they are important to recognize. Newly diagnosed arthritis patients quickly realize that early symptoms are just the first layer to be uncovered before a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan can be established.

Early symptoms linked to arthritis usually include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Tenderness in and around the joint
  • Limited range of motion in one or more joints
  • Redness and warmth around the affected joint

Clinical Picture Begins to Formulate

Though early symptoms are the first indication of an arthritic condition, there is much more information which needs to be gathered. There are more than 100 types of arthritis and related rheumatic conditions. For a patient to obtain a specific diagnosis (i.e. What type of arthritis do I have?), a doctor must evaluate the patient's:

  • Medical history
  • Current physical examination
  • Diagnostic tests
  • Assessment of disease progression

Together, the criteria formulate a clinical picture which must be routinely re-assessed by your doctor. It's important for you to learn the major differences between the various types of arthritis. An understanding of the primary characteristics associated with each type of arthritis will help you recognize what is and is not important to report to your doctor with regard to your own condition.

Know the Symptoms of Major Types of Arthritis

A basic knowledge of the major types of arthritis and symptoms also will better prepare you for doctor appointments. You will find it easier to formulate questions and communicate with your doctor once you are confident that you understand basic facts about arthritis symptoms.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an inflammatory type of arthritis. The joints are primarily affected, but there can be systemic effects (i.e. organs) as well. Morning stiffness lasting more than an hour, involvement of the small bones of the hands and feet, extreme fatigue, rheumatoid nodules, and symmetrical joint involvement (i.e. both knees not one knee) are all characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis predominantly affects the joints, unlike other types of arthritis which may have systemic effects. The most common symptom associated with osteoarthritis is pain in the affected joint after repeated use. Joint pain is often worse later in the day. The affected joints can swell, feel warm, and become stiff after prolonged inactivity. Osteoarthritis can occur with other forms of arthritis simultaneously. Bone spurs and bony enlargements are also characteristic of osteoarthritis.

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a type of arthritis associated with psoriasis (a skin condition characterized by red, patchy, raised or scaly areas) and chronic joint symptoms. The symptoms of psoriasis and joint inflammation often develop separately. Symptoms associated with psoriatic arthritis vary in how they occur (i.e. symmetrical or asymmetrical) and what joints are affected. Any joint in the body can be affected. When psoriasis causes pitting and thickened or discolored fingernails, the joints nearest the fingertips are likely to become arthritic.

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is commonly associated with inflammation which starts at the lower spine or sacroiliac joints. The earliest symptoms are often chronic pain and stiffness in the lower back region and hips. Typical ankylosing spondylitis pain in the back worsens following rest or inactivity. As symptoms of pain and stiffness progress up the spine to the neck, possibly including the rib cage area, bones may fuse.

Lupus

Lupus can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, heart, nervous system and other organs of the body. It is not uncommon for symptoms associated with lupus to resemble symptoms associated with other types of arthritis and rheumatic disease, making lupus difficult to diagnose. A butterfly-shaped rash appearing on the cheeks and over the bridge of the nose (malar rash) is just one of the distinguishing characteristics of lupus.

Gout

Gout is considered one of the most intensely painful types of arthritis. Gout is characterized by sudden onset of severe pain, tenderness, warmth, redness, and swelling from inflammation of the affected joint. Gout usually affects a single joint and most often the big toe is affected. The knee, ankle, foot, hand, wrist, and elbow may also be affected. Shoulders, hips, and spine may eventually be affected by gout, but rarely. Often the first gout attack occurs at night.

Symptom Patterns of Other Inflammatory Conditions Affecting Joints

There are other types of arthritis and joint inflammation conditions to consider as well:

As you learn about them, you and your doctor will decide which of your symptoms matches the diagnostic scheme of a particular type of arthritis. The process of identifying a specific type of arthritis is not always quick. Individual symptoms and symptom patterns can make diagnosing arthritis tricky. Being aware of early symptoms is a definite advantage however.

Sources:

Arthritis Foundation, Diseases and Conditions.
http://www.arthritis.org

American College of Rheumatology. Diseases.
http://www.rheumatology.org

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