Creaky, stiff or painful joints are all too familiar signs of aging, and arthritis is often the cause. These common symptoms, alongside other signs of aging, can increase the difficulty of performing your daily activities.
Arthritis can result in movement impairments and discomfort. However, it can also be managed with select exercises and proper medical guidance, among other options.
Let’s explore the ins and outs of an arthritis diagnosis and how to improve your symptoms today.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a common, chronic medical condition that affects millions of people. Arthritis, classified as a joint disorder, often causes pain, stiffness, and inflammation.
Arthritis is not a singular disease; the term refers to a large group of conditions.
These conditions cause inflammation and tenderness in one or more joints. Arthritis is chronic and can affect any joint in the body, including but not limited to the knees, fingers, and spine.
Types of Arthritis
There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and it is also sometimes broadly known as “inflammatory arthritis”. The most commonly known varieties are osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and gout.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis.
OA occurs when the cartilage that typically cushions your joints wears away, causing pain, stiffness, and worsening joint degeneration.
Overuse of a joint and frequent injury increases the likelihood of developing OA. For this reason, osteoarthritis occurs most often in older adults; what doctors commonly call normal “wear-and-tear.” (1)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic autoimmune disorder that affects the lining of the joints. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the synovial membrane, a thin layer of tissue that lines the joints.
In severe cases, RA can cause visible deformities. In addition to joint pain and swelling, symptoms may include fatigue, fever, and a feeling of malaise. (2)
Gout is arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. Gout pain comes on suddenly and is severe. It most often affects the big toe.
During a gout “attack,” pain and other symptoms can last several days to a few weeks, gradually improving as the attack subsides.
Gout attacks can become more frequent and severe without adequate disease management. This can lead to long-term damage to those joints.
Psoriatic arthritis occurs in people with psoriasis, a skin condition.
Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes red, itchy, scaly patches on the skin. Psoriatic arthritis causes similar joint symptoms to other arthritis.
Besides joint symptoms, psoriatic arthritis can cause eye redness, nail changes, and stomach issues.
Infection-related arthritis, such as septic arthritis, results from a bacterial or viral infection.
The infection can travel through the bloodstream to the joints, causing severe inflammation and intense pain, which can result in an infectious arthritis diagnosis.
It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to develop arthritis at any age, made evident by conditions like juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Joint inflammation and problems with joint function or connective tissues (as in undifferentiated connective tissue disease) may also resemble arthritis.
It’s important to consult with your doctor to have your arthritis diagnosed properly.
Risk Factors for Developing Arthritis
Several factors increase the risk of developing arthritis, including:
Age — Arthritis is more likely to develop as you get older.
Sex — Females are more prone to developing arthritis compared to males.
Obesity — Being overweight may put increased stress on your joints, heightening the risk of arthritis.
Previous Joint Injuries — A previous injury or repetitive surgery on one joint can increase your risk. For example, multiple knee surgeries at a young age increase your risk of developing arthritis as you age.
Genetics — A family history of arthritis increases your risk of developing it. Arthritis has a hereditary component, but this depends on the type.
OA is more often associated with the overuse of a joint than genetics.
RA, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis have a more prominent genetic component.
Research shows that having a close family member with one of these types of arthritis can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. (2)
Lifestyle Choices, Diet, and Environment — Lifestyle factors are also associated with a higher incidence of arthritis for some people. For example, a person who works a heavy manual labor job is at higher risk for developing OA than a project manager on the job site due to the nature of the work.
Common Triggers for Arthritis
Triggers for arthritis symptoms include stress, changes in the weather, and physical activity.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing pre-existing conditions, and seeing a healthcare provider can help you tackle your arthritis.
Symptoms of Arthritis
The symptoms of arthritis will vary depending on the type of arthritis you have. Still, there are some symptoms that all types of arthritis have in common.
Joint pain, stiffness, decreased range of motion, and inflammation or redness near the joints are commonly reported for most types of arthritis. Depending on the type of arthritis, some symptoms tend to be more severe than others.
Pain is often one of the first noticed and most limiting symptoms in all kinds of arthritis.
Arthritis can cause pain in any joint affected. The pain can range from mild to severe, gradual to sudden onset. Feelings of worsening pain are typically followed by increased stiffness and swelling. (1)
The duration of arthritis pain depends on many factors, including which type of arthritis you have and the severity of the case. Sometimes, the pain is temporary and only lasts a few days. Other times, the pain is chronic and can last for several years.
But don’t let that scare you — thankfully, there are many ways to manage arthritis pain.
Treatment Options for Arthritis
Treatment for arthritis will depend on many factors. These include the type of arthritis you have, your comorbidities (other simultaneous conditions), and how exacerbated your symptoms are.
Physical Therapy/Non-Surgical Methods
Targeted exercises may be vital in improving your function and managing arthritis symptoms.
Often, strengthening the muscles surrounding a joint can provide much-needed support. Flexibility and range of motion exercises can increase tissue extensibility.
Physical therapy may include heat or cold therapy, soft tissue massage, and dry needling, among other treatment modalities. (1)
The term functional movement refers to performing exercises that bolster everyday activities.
Practicing ergonomics (or movement efficiency) can help decrease joint stress by adjusting body posture and adapting movement to better suit your lifestyle.
Our typical movement patterns may often be wearing on a joint due to malalignment, being overweight, or other factors. Learning to move your body more efficiently can also help reduce pain and prevent further injury.
Strengthening exercises can decrease the amount of pressure and stress on a joint.
Increasing the strength of muscles around a joint allows those muscles to take on the impact force instead of the joint structures.
Low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, and cycling are also suitable and recommended for people with arthritis.
Wearing custom or even off-the-shelf braces or other supportive devices can help manage pain.
I emphasize to my patients that wearing braces and orthotics is only for support: they can help to decrease pain in the short term, but they are not long-term solutions or substitutes for exercise and proper movement re-education.
Medications can help with reducing inflammation and pain management. Medications include:
NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
Many pain medications, especially among older adults, must be prescribed and taken under the supervision of your physician. (3)
In severe cases of arthritis, getting joint replacement surgery may be necessary to replace the damaged joint with an artificial one.
Often, surgeons will first recommend physical therapy and other conservative management. For some, a total or partial joint replacement may be necessary.
Though not without a tough recovery, these surgeries may improve the quality of movement.
Many of my patients have asked me whether arthritis can be reversed.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis, and it cannot be reversed. Yet, with proper treatment, you can manage your arthritis symptoms and may even be able to slow down disease progression.
Early diagnosis and treatment are essential. The guidance and expertise of a knowledgeable physical therapist can be a game changer when dealing with arthritis. (3)
If you suspect you may be dealing with arthritis, consult your physical therapist to get screened today.
Mushtaq, S., Choudhary, R., & Scanzello, C. R. (2011). Non-surgical treatment of osteoarthritis-related pain in the elderly. Current reviews in musculoskeletal medicine, 4(3), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12178-011-9084-9
Ge, X., Frank-Bertoncelj, M., Klein, K., McGovern, A., Kuret, T., Houtman, M., … & Ospelt, C. (2021). Functional genomics atlas of synovial fibroblasts defining rheumatoid arthritis heritability. Genome biology, 22(1), 1-39.
Fitzcharles, M. A., Lussier, D., & Shir, Y. (2010). Management of chronic arthritis pain in the elderly. Drugs & aging, 27(6), 471–490. https://doi.org/10.2165/11536530-000000000-00000