Arthritis Types
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Are you wondering if the pain and stiffness in your hips, knees, or fingers are caused by arthritis? Here's how you and your doctor can decide.

Hardly anyone escapes the annoyance of occasional aches and pains, especially as we age. But persistent joint pain and stiffness can be signs of arthritis, which affects about 50 million American adults.

So how do you know if your symptoms are caused by arthritis or something else? While joint pain and stiffness are the most common terms used to describe arthritis pain, the warning signs are pretty specific. Here's what you need to know in order to get the right diagnosis — and the best treatment.

Identifying Osteoarthritis Pain

Pain is pain, right? It just plain hurts. But in order for your doctor to figure out whether your joint pain stems from osteoarthritis, a common type of arthritis that occurs as cartilage wears away, you’ll need to be specific about when the pain occurs, how bad it is, and the ways it's affecting you.

Here are some common signs of osteoarthritis that may help you to identify and better describe your pain to your doctor:

  • Pain that aches deep into the joint
  • Pain that feels better with rest
  • Pain that isn't noticeable in the morning, but gets worse throughout the day
  • Pain that radiates into your buttocks, thighs, or groin
  • Joint pain that affects your posture and gait and may cause limping
  • Pain that occurs after using the joint
  • Swelling in the joint
  • Not being able to move the joint as much as usual
  • Feeling a sensation of bones grating or catching on something when moving the joint
  • Pain during certain activities like standing from a seated position or using stairs
  • Pain that interferes with work, daily activities, and exercise
  • Pain that increases with rainy weather
  • Joint stiffness first thing in the morning that improves with time
  • Stiffness after resting the joint

Identifying Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain

Rheumatoid arthritis has many symptoms that you might not associate with arthritis pain. These can include:

  • Joint pain that occurs on both sides of the body, such as both feet, ankles, wrists, or fingers
  • Significant stiffness in the morning that persists for at least an hour
  • Aching muscles all over the body
  • Weak muscles
  • Feeling tired or depressed
  • Losing weight and not having much appetite
  • Slight fever
  • Swelling of glands
  • Joint pain that gets worse after sitting for a long time
  • Pain that will ease for periods, then get significantly worse, rather than consistent pain
  • Heat and soreness in the joints

Telling Your Doctor About Your Joint Pain

In order to determine if your pain is due to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or another type of arthritis, your doctor will ask you many questions about your pain, how it affects your life and body, when it occurs, and how bad it gets. Your doctor may ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 (almost no pain) to 10 (unbearable pain).

Before you speak with your doctor, think about the words you want to use to describe your joint pain. Here are some terms that will help your doctor get the full picture. Choose the ones that best describe how the arthritis pain feels:

  • Throbbing
  • Aching
  • Sharp or shooting
  • Hot or burning
  • Grinding or grating
  • Dull

You may also want to keep a diary of how you feel each day, rating your pain at different times and after different activities. Record what makes your pain feel better, and what makes it worse. Also share with your doctor what you can and cannot do because of your pain; for instance, make note of whether you can drive a car comfortably, but have difficulty holding a fork. Your doctor will also want to know about any other symptoms you are experiencing (such as fever or a skin rash), which could point to another kind of arthritis.

Taking the time to focus on your pain and other symptoms will help your doctor formulate a clear diagnosis, and find the best course of treatment to help ease your pain.