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Stiffness, inflammation and warmth are some of the key characteristics of arthritis. This article outlines how to determine whether your joint stiffness and inflammation signals a diagnosis of arthritis.

Arthritis is a condition that is largely known to be characterized by inflammation and swelling of joints. It is a common condition, with the two most common subtypes being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis is quite a varied disease, with more than a 100 individual subtypes, all of which are different from each other.

Despite the overarching symptom of joint inflammation, arthritis varies significantly from person to person, even in patients with the same subtype. The most consistent symptom of arthritis is inflammation and stiffness of joints. Hence, your joints should be your guide when determining whether you have arthritis or another condition that has similar symptoms.

Do I have arthritis?

When asking the question of whether or not your symptoms indicate that you have arthritis, there are four things in particular you should focus on. These include: pain, swelling, stiffness and difficulty moving a joint. If you experience all four symptoms, then you should immediately go to a doctor and inform them. At that point, your doctor will likely refer you to a rheumatologist who will conduct a physical examination.

Here are some details about the four major symptoms associated with arthritis:

  • Swelling in a joint. In some types of arthritis, the skin over the joint that is affected can become quite red and swollen, and even feel warm to the touch. If the swelling over the joint is accompanied by pain and stiffness and lasts for longer than three days or more than three times a month then you should go to the doctor as soon as possible to prevent any permanent damage to the joint.
  • Stiffness of joint. This is one of the hallmarks of arthritis. If you wake up in the morning with stiffness of joint, then there is a good chance that you have arthritis. Stiffness of joint can also develop after rest (such as sitting at a desk or in a car) for a long period of time. Generally, if your morning stiffness lasts longer than an hour then that should prompt a visit to your doctor.
  • Difficulty moving a joint. If you feel that it is difficult to move a joint or your range of motion is impaired, then that is a good reason to suspect that you have a type of arthritis. It is important to keep in mind that it shouldn’t be difficult to get out of a car or up from a chair.
  • Pain in joint. If you have arthritis, then the pain in your joints can either come and go or be constant. This often depends on the type of arthritis you have. Furthermore, pain can occur during periods of movement or rest. Lastly, pain is not simply restricted to one part of the body as it can move to different parts.

How does swelling of joints occur?

Generally, swelling of joints occurs because the lining of the joint (called the synovium) swells or the fluid that surrounds the joint starts to increase in volume. Inflammation develops because inflammatory white blood cells enter into the joint. In the meantime, cells in the inflamed joint release small inflammatory proteins, thus making the joint environment even more inflamed. All this blood flow into the joint causes it to swell and feel warm.

The disease is associated with a rapid division and growth of cells, and it causes the synovium to become thicker. The inflammatory molecules cause more fluid to collect in and around the joints, leading to further swelling. Swelling can affect any joint, though it tends to start in small joints such as those of the hand and the feet. Furthermore, it tends to occur on both sides of the body. The inflamed cells that are gathered in the synovium releases enzymes that digest bone and cartilage, causing joint and bone erosion. Therefore, swelling of the joint is closely associated with development of pain.

How does stiffness of joints occur?

Morning stiffness is a key symptom of arthritis. Unfortunately, defining morning stiffness is a little difficult as it is different for everyone. However, many people describe it as an ache that is combined with difficulty moving. Stiffness of joint in the morning can be indicative of arthritis, especially if the stiffness lasts for an hour in the morning or longer.

Additionally, patients with osteoarthritis can also develop stiffness of joints after exercise. Many patients with arthritis will also have stiffness after a period of inactivity or rest (such as sitting down or relaxing). Stiffness of joint can be accompanied with or without joint pain and can affect several different types of joints including fingers and hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, feet, shoulders, hips, and the jaw.

What should you do if you think you have arthritis?

You need to immediately make an appointment with your doctor and keep track of where and when you feel symptoms coming on. It is also good to keep track of what helps ease your symptoms.

How can you ease your symptoms before you see the doctor?

These are the things you can do to ease your symptoms before seeing a doctor:

  • Apply a cold or hot pack to the joints.
  • Take a warm shower
  • Take a dip in a heated pool
  • Over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen

  • Bäcklund, Lars, and Per Tiselius. "Objective measurement of joint stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis." Acta Rheumatologica Scandinavica 13.1-4 (1967): 275-288.
  • Majithia, Vikas, and Stephen A. Geraci. "Rheumatoid arthritis: diagnosis and management." The American journal of medicine 120.11 (2007): 936-939.
  • Lineker, S. Y. D. N. E. Y., et al. "Defining morning stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis." J Rheumatol 26.1052 (1999): 7.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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