Arthritis: Catching It Early

Your knee feels sore and stiff when you wake up in the morning. After an hour of creaking and groaning, it finally decides to loosen up for the rest of the day. The pattern repeats itself the next day. And the next. At this point, you have two choices: Put up with the pain or get some help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 46 million Americans have been diagnosed with arthritis -- and by 2030 that number is expected to rise to about 67 million. Unfortunately, not all of them take quick action. People who try to deal with arthritis on their own are missing out on excellent opportunities for relief. Today's treatments can ease symptoms and help people get back to life as usual.

Any delay in treatment is especially harmful for people with rheumatoid arthritis. As reported in the journal Best Practice and Research Clinical Rheumatology, early treatment of rheumatoid arthritis can slow down joint damage, prevent disabilities, and even prolong lives.

With so much at stake, everyone should know the warning signs of arthritis -- a term that actually describes 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions that affect joints and the tissues around them. Here's a look at the early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis as well as osteoarthritis, the most common form of the disease. If these symptoms sound familiar, promptly schedule an appointment with your family doctor, who will examine you, order medical tests, prescribe medications, and possibly refer you to a rheumatologist if your evaluation suggests that you have rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Inflamed joints are the hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis. The inflammation makes joints swollen, sore, stiff, and possibly warm to the touch. The stiffness is most obvious in the morning, but often fades after an hour or so. The adult form of rheumatoid arthritis always affects at least three joints, including at least one wrist or finger joint. The disease also commonly strikes the knees, elbows, toes, ankles, or neck. Rheumatoid arthritis is often symmetrical; if one elbow or knee is inflamed, the other probably is, too.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a "systemic" disease. In other words, it signals a problem with the entire system, not just the joints. As a result, some patients have symptoms that have nothing to do with their joints. According to the National Institutes of Health, other possible symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • fatigue
  • low-grade fever
  • loss of appetite
  • swollen glands
  • pale skin
  • burning or itching eyes
  • discharge from eyes
  • small, round, painless lumps under the skin

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a joint disease of wear and tear. After years of use, the cartilage that protects the joints begins to break down, causing pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, but it's most common in the hands, hips, knees, and spine. The pain may be steady, or it may come and go. As with rheumatoid arthritis, the stiffness is usually worse in the morning. Joints may become swollen and tender, but because inflammation plays a minor role in the disease, they probably won't be red or warm to the touch. If enough cartilage has worn away, joints might make cracking or crunching noises as bone rubs against bone.

As described by the National Institutes of Health, osteoarthritis affects different joints in different ways. Many older people -- especially older women -- develop osteoarthritis in their hands. Fingers become swollen and gnarled, and small, hard knobs can form on the joint. Osteoarthritis in the hips can cause pain in the hips, groin, inner thigh, or knees. Osteoarthritis in the spine can cause pain or stiffness in the neck or lower back.

Besides seeing your doctor, there are many things you can do to help manage your condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taking a warm shower every morning can help ease stiff, sore joints. Regular physical exercise -- 30 minutes a day at least five times a week -- will greatly reduce pain and improve mobility. (Getting your exercise in 10-minutes bouts is fine.) Maintaining a healthy weight can also help slow the progress of the disease.

References

Arthritis: Key Public Health Messages. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control. Arthritis: Meeting the Challenge.

Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. Rheumatoid Arthritis.

National Institutes of Health. Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis.

Quinn MA et al. How do you diagnose rheumatoid arthritis early? Best Practice and Research Clinical Rheumatology. 15(1): 49-66.

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