1 in 5 Americans suffers from arthritis, the inflammation of one or more joints.

As you age, it becomes increasingly likely that you’ll suffer at least mild symptoms of arthritis, but it’s not unique to older patients; younger people often suffer arthritis without realizing their joint pain is unusual.

What is Arthritis?

Like cancer, the term refers not to a single disease with a distinct set of symptoms, causes, and treatments, but well over 100 different related diseases with similar symptoms. Most cases of arthritis nonetheless fall into one of two primary types: osteoarthritis, which causes the breakdown of the cartilage which caps your bones and pads your joints, and rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease which primarily targets the synovium which lines your joints. Arthritis can also arise due to bodily acidity and inflammation as a primary or secondary symptom of any number of diseases, infections, and disorders.

Key Symptoms

Given the wide number of conditions encompassed in the term, arthritis is defined by a set of symptoms more than the specifics of what causes them. The most common symptoms of joint inflammation include, but are not limited to:
  • Pain. Arthritic joints can hurt to move, ache dully day and night, or merely feel vaguely uncomfortable in a way you can’t quite place.
  • Stiffness. Even in the absence of pain, arthritis can lead to stiffness in the affected joint due to damaged tissues, swelling, and other effects of inflammation.
  • Swelling. Simple swelling of the joints is one of the first symptoms many arthritis sufferers notice, even before pain.
  • Limited range of motion. Arthritic joints often lose part of their range of motion; this can be due to pain, due to joint instability, bone abnormalities due to prolonged osteoarthritis, etc.
  • Joint instability. Instability in the joint also points to damage from arthritis; that is, joints that move in ways they should not.
  • Redness. Some forms of arthritis cause redness in the adjacent skin.
  • Warmth. Inflammation often causes tissues to be warm to the touch, similar to infected tissue.
  • Muscle weakness. Rheumatoid arthritis in particular is strongly associated with muscle weakness near the affected joints, even when controlling for age and other factors.
It’s important to note that these are not the only potential symptoms of arthritis, as the inflammation of tissues can have far-reaching effects on the body. Reactive arthritis, for example, is also associated with eye inflammation and skin ulcers, while arthritis affecting neck joints can lead to chronic headaches.

Different forms of arthritis have different root causes, and accordingly have different risk factors. Osteoarthritis is often the simple result of wear and tear and can come about from any combination of physical activity, weak cartilage, age, and old injury, for example.

Many other forms of arthritis, on the other hand, are associated with autoimmune disorders, and thus have very strong genetic components while physical activity plays a less critical role.

Despite this range of potential causes, we can associate certain risk factors with an overall increase in the likelihood that you’ll suffer one or more forms of arthritis:

  • Family history. If people in your family suffer from a form of arthritis, even one with a physical component like osteoarthritis, you’re significantly more likely to suffer from it yourself.
  • Age. Most forms of arthritis become more likely to develop with age; even those with a genetic component may only reach clinical significance later in life.
  • Sex. Your sex influences your likelihood of developing various forms of arthritis; overall, women are more likely to develop some form of arthritis, but various forms are much more common in men.
  • Weight. Obesity increases the likelihood of developing arthritis, even in joints which aren’t affected by increased wear and tear with increased weight. Symptoms will be far more pronounced in lower body joints, i.e. each pound of body weight exerts four more pounds of pressure on your knees when walking.
  • Injury. Joints you’ve previously injured are significantly more likely to develop symptoms of arthritis, or present with more severe symptoms than other joints in your body.
  • Inflammatory illness. Any inflammatory illness, even those not necessarily associated with your joints, increase your likelihood of developing arthritis. One in three patients with inflammatory bowel disease suffer arthritis, for example.

The key to managing arthritis is early recognition of the condition. The sooner you identify the problem—and the specific form of arthritis—the better you’ll be able to mitigate and minimize ongoing damage to your joints.

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