Arthritis is an umbrella term for inflammation of the joints where two bones meet (think knees, elbows, fingers, etc.). When the cushioning between joints gets damaged, worn down, or thinned out with age, injury, or disease, bones that shouldn’t touch can grind against each other and erode. Arthritic pain can significantly impact your quality of life and make ordinary, day-to-day movement painful and restrictive.1
Interesting fact: by itself, the term “arthritis” just describes a symptom; it’s not technically a diagnosis.2 The actual diagnosis depends on the specific joint(s) or systems the inflammation is affecting. Here are some of the most common types of arthritis:
There are several causes of arthritis, but the most common one is wear and tear–put simply, age.4 Osteoarthritis causes cartilage to thin out and wear away in pretty predictable patterns. Injuries can also lead to arthritis; even when a joint is properly healed and treated after an injury, it’s still more susceptible to arthritis down the road. Inflammatory autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are also common culprits of arthritis, as is fibromyalgia, a central nervous system pain disorder.
While arthritis looks a little different for everyone it affects, some symptoms are widely experienced by people with arthritis. Naturally, what arthritis actually feels like also varies by factors like age, gender, medical comorbidities, and individual differences. Generally speaking, rainy weather and overuse can exacerbate arthritic pain; rest can relieve it. Arthritis flares are commonly characterized by swelling, redness, and warmth to the touch.
Let’s break it down by area.
Symptoms of arthritis in the hands
There are tons of small bones and joints in the hands or some uncomfortable stiffness in your hands upon waking in the morning.
Symptoms of arthritis in the knees
Your knee is one of the biggest joints in your body–it’s where your shin bone (tibia), thigh bone (femur), and knee cap (patella) connect.5 The cartilage between each bone prevents friction and allows your leg to bend smoothly, and tissue called the synovial membrane covers the cartilage. With age, disease, and traumatic injury, knee cartilage and the membrane around it can degenerate. You may experience symptoms like swelling, cracking or grinding sounds, locking in place, buckling, and limited range of motion. This can cause difficulty walking and make ordinary activities like walking, squatting, and kneeling increasingly painful as arthritis of the knee progresses. Mornings can be challenging because the knees stiffen after being motionless throughout the night.
Symptoms of arthritis in the neck
Apparently, almost everyone will end up with cervical spondylosis--otherwise known as arthritis of the neck--at some point in their lives. The average human head weighs 10 (!) pounds, so it stands to reason that the cushions between the vertebrae supporting its weight would weaken over time. Pain and stiffness of the neck are the most common symptoms for this arthritis type, followed by cracking and popping sensations, headaches that originate in the neck, limited range of motion, and pain that radiates into the arm and/or hand.6
Symptoms of arthritis in the hips
Gradual damage due to osteoarthritis, dysplasia, and impingement can cause inflammation in the hip joints. Rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis can also attack the hip joints, causing pain in the groin, buttocks, and thighs. Stiffness of the hips can limit range of movement and make certain activities of daily living more difficult. Another telltale sign of hip arthritis is that snapping, cracking, crunching sound you hear when your hips move (this is called crepitus). Paradoxically, arthritic hip pain is worse after both long periods of rest and long periods of standing and walking.
Symptoms of arthritis in the elbows
The most common cause of elbow arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis; injuries, trauma, and osteoarthritis can also cause painful inflammation in this area.7 While an injury or trauma will typically only cause pain to the affected elbow, rheumatoid arthritis attacks both simultaneously. Elbow arthritis might feel worse when rotating or extending your arm, and your elbow may click or lock in place at times.
Symptoms of arthritis in the ankles and feet
Like the hands, the feet and ankles have many small bones and dozens of joints. The feet and ankles support so much weight throughout the course of life, they’re bound to lose some of the cushioning that keeps bones from grating against each other. Limited range of motion, stiffness, and swelling are common manifestations of lower extremity arthritis. Eventually, foot and ankle joint(s) can lose significant function, making normal weight-bearing more challenging.
Symptoms of arthritis in the jaw
Arthritis in the jaw is a bit different than other types of arthritis because it happens in one particular place–the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), a hinge-like mechanism on either side of your jaw.8 TMJ pain can be caused by a number of things, but when arthritis is the culprit, the damaged cartilage causes aching pain around your ear and face, tenderness in your jaw, pain while chewing, and clicking and/or locking of the jaw itself.
So how do you find out if you actually have arthritis?
Blood tests, medical history, and physical examinations can point strongly to arthritis, but scans like X-rays, MRIs, CTs are what allow doctors to make a definitive diagnosis. Therapeutic ultrasounds can also help guide needle placement if certain medications are being injected or if fluid is being drained from arthritic joints.
If you’re in pain and think arthritis might be the reason head over to scan.com’s easy-to-use scan search tool to find a medical imaging center near you.
arthritis.org: Types of Arthritis Pain
niams.nih.gov: What is Arthritis & What Causes it? | NIAMS
cdc.gov: Gout | Arthritis | CDC
orthoinfo.aaos.org: Arthritis of the Hand - OrthoInfo - AAOS
clevelandclinic.org: Arthritis in Knee: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
hopkinsmedicine.org: Spinal Arthritis (Arthritis in the Back or Neck) | Johns Hopkins Medicine
cedars-sinai.org: Arthritis of the Elbow | Cedars-Sinai
mayoclinic.org: TMJ disorders - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic