Everything You Need to Know About Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States, affecting over 53 million adults. According to one estimation, by 2030, 67 million people will be diagnosed with the condition.

Osteoarthritis, the most prevalent kind of arthritis, mostly affects older adults, but young people are not immune to the onset of arthritis. So let’s take a look at the early signs of arthritis, the different types of arthritis, and their symptoms.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. It can affect people of all ages, but it’s most common among adults over the age of 65. It often affects:

  • Feet
  • Hands
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Lower back

There are many different types of arthritis, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Arthritis can make it difficult to move and do everyday activities. Some people have occasional flare-ups, while others experience chronic pain, but with the right treatment and lifestyle changes, you can lessen the pain and improve joint function.

A close-up of hands with symptoms of arthritis

Causes of arthritis

For many arthritis types, the exact causes remain a mystery. Most types of arthritis are believed to originate from an autoimmune response, when the body mistakenly attacks its own joint structures.

Some risk factors for arthritis are:

  • Obesity, which increases joint stress
  • Activities that require repeated motions of a certain joint
  • Joint damage in the past, maybe from playing sports
  • Smoking
  • Insufficient exercise

Reactive arthritis is a kind of arthritic inflammation that develops in response to an infection. It’s hard to pin down what causes it, and it may strike at any age, but it’s more prevalent in young people. The duration of reactive arthritis might range from a few weeks to many months.

Different types of arthritis and their symptoms

Arthritis comes in more than a hundred different forms. Examples of some of the more frequent ones include the following.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder. An autoimmune disorder is when the body’s immune system begins to mistakenly target healthy tissue, often in the joints but also in other organs. It may affect multiple joints, as well as the person’s general health.

In 2017, researchers examined the prevalence of RA and discovered that it impacted 0.41–0.54 percent of the adult population in the United States. Women were more likely to be affected than men, and the condition was found to be increasingly widespread as people aged.

Discover the link between your well-being and the weather!
Track how you feel in different weather and get personalized health insights based on the conditions around you.
4.7
Weatherwell app screenshot

In a study of 52,840 people in 2018, the researchers found that RA was a significant risk factor for a number of other health problems. The study indicated that the risk of cerebrovascular disorders was 2.35 times greater in young individuals with RA, including stroke and coronary artery disease.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Firm lumps — it’s a rare symptom that appears in approximately 20 percent of RA cases

Osteoarthritis

The most prevalent kind of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA), develops from the slow breakdown of cartilage that normally cushions the joints.

Risk factors for OA include participating in high-impact sports or being overweight, both of which may put extra stress on the joints.

Joint wear and tear is a major cause of OA, which is why it often affects the elderly. According to a 2020 meta-analysis of 88 studies, the prevalence of knee OA among people over the age of 15 is 16 percent, and for those over the age of 40, it rises to 22.9 percent.

The symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Grinding or cracking noise in joints
  • Joint instability

Juvenile arthritis

Childhood-onset arthritis is known as juvenile arthritis. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis — a kind of rheumatoid arthritis — is the most prevalent form. Though some cases of juvenile arthritis resolve on their own, others might last until adulthood.

An 18-year-long population-based research study on young people with arthritis was completed in 2020 in Norway. At the study’s conclusion, 46 percent of participants had active arthritis, and the vast majority still required treatment with medication. Without disease-modifying medicines, just 33 percent of patients attained remission.

The symptoms of juvenile arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation of the eye
  • Difficulty with daily living activities such as walking, dressing, and playing

Gout

Inflammatory arthritis is one of the many forms of gout. Uric acid is a waste product that may build up to dangerous levels in the body, and this buildup is what causes gout. A higher chance of acquiring gout is associated with certain medical disorders, such as renal and heart failure.

Gout affects mostly the elderly, but it may occasionally strike young people too.

Track your joint pain with WeatherWell!
Download our free app to understand what weather changes affect your joints and get daily tips to manage your symptoms.

In 2015 and 2016, 3.2 percent of individuals in the United States were diagnosed with gout, according to research published in 2019. According to the findings, gout may be an even more significant risk factor for poor heart health in people younger than 40.

Having gout as a young adult is associated with a higher chance of future attacks.

The symptoms of gouty arthritis include:

  • Joint inflammation in the big toe
  • Swollen, red, warm, and stiff joints

What are the early signs of arthritis?

Among the many possible early arthritis symptoms are:

  • Joint pain. It may be constant, intermittent, or present just upon touching the afflicted region.
  • Joint stiffness. It can happen after sitting for a long time.
  • Swelling around the joint. It’s not only the joints themselves that may become inflamed. The swollen area may be tender to the touch.
  • Loss of motion is also one of arthritis’s early signs.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

An arthritis doctor may diagnose arthritis using a series of tests, including a physical examination, blood work, imaging scans, and other diagnostic procedures. A visit to a rheumatologist is probably in order for those dealing with inflammatory arthritis and who want an arthritis diagnosis.

Patients with more complicated conditions are often sent to specialists so that they may get care for a wider range of symptoms and underlying causes.

Is arthritis hereditary?

The symptoms and causes of arthritis range widely. Some of them are caused by genetics, and others are not.

By the time individuals are in their 40s and 50s, osteoarthritis is a common problem. The incidence drops dramatically before the age of 30. There is a hereditary component in 35–60 percent of instances, although other variables also play a role.

The genetic component of rheumatoid arthritis is much higher. Certain rheumatoid arthritis-related genes have been discovered as being heritable in patients.

Human leukocyte antigen genes are associated with both an increased chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis and a more severe manifestation of the disease.

Siblings, parents, and offspring of a person with rheumatoid arthritis have a slightly increased chance of having the disease, according to studies.

However, just because you have a family history of arthritis does not guarantee that you will definitely get the disease. Indeed, there are several measures you can take to reduce your vulnerability to arthritis.

Living with arthritis: Medication and other treatment options

Arthritis has no known cure. To manage symptoms, doctors typically prioritize anti-inflammatory and pain relief measures.

What works best for one individual may not work at all for another, especially when it comes to arthritis treatment. Medicines that lower uric acid levels, for instance, may be useful in treating gout. However, in general, available treatments include the following.

A group of people exercising outside to improve arthritis symptoms

Lifestyle changes

Quitting smoking reduces arthritis risk. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet help reduce joint stress and inflammation, respectively.

Anti-inflammatory drugs

Arthritis medications that reduce inflammation and alleviate pain without the use of opioids may be useful in managing flare-ups.

Exercise

People with arthritis may find relief via physical activity. When it comes to regaining mobility, some individuals discover that physical therapy is the key to unlocking new and better methods of moving.

Heat and cold

Both heat and cold can help relieve joint inflammation and pain. Using an ice pack (wrapped in a towel) can reduce swelling, while a warm bath or shower or a heating pad can ease pain. Through some trial and error, you can find a combination of hot and cold therapy that works for you.

Massage therapy

Massage can stimulate blood flow to the sore muscles, improve joint mobility, and ease pain. But make sure to consult with your doctor first. They can recommend the type of massage suitable for your condition.

Conclusion

People of all ages may get arthritis. Young people with arthritis may experience isolation, prolonged diagnostic delays, and a sense of being misunderstood due to the misconception that the illness only affects the elderly.

Although most types of arthritis cannot be cured, they can be managed and, in some cases, even put into remission, enabling the patient to have a symptom-free life.

A young person’s quality of life may be enhanced through medical treatment, psychological counseling, advocacy, and self-care.

January 17, 2023