Common early signs of arthritis can include swelling, pain, stiffness, and a decrease in the range of motion in the joints. Different types of arthritis may show up slightly differently but typically include similar symptoms, such as discomfort in a joint.

Arthritis refers to a group of conditions that cause inflammation of one or more joints. There are over 100 types of arthritis and related conditions. Evidence suggests that roughly 58.5 million American adults have received a diagnosis of some form of arthritis.

Typically, symptoms of arthritis include swelling, pain, and stiffness in a joint. Although no cure for arthritis currently exists, identifying symptoms and starting treatment early can be beneficial for slowing and managing the condition.

This article will discuss the early signs of arthritis, how to manage symptoms, and when an individual should contact a doctor.

An older adult swimming.Share on Pinterest
Solskin/Getty Images

Specific symptoms will vary depending on the type of arthritis a person has, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some common symptoms that may be an early sign of arthritis can include:

  • Pain: A person will typically experience pain in their joints, which may be present all of the time, some of the time, or only when they touch the affected area.
  • Swelling: The area around a person’s joints may feel warm and look red. The tissue around the joints may also become inflamed. This may also feel as though there is fluid in the swollen area. A doctor may want to know if these symptoms come and go or last for long periods of time.
  • Stiffness: A doctor may ask an individual some questions about when their joints feel stiff and how long that stiffness tends to last.
  • Reduced range of motion: Stiffness in the joints can cause a loss in range of movement.

Other symptoms that are not directly related to a person’s joints can occur, the Arthritis Foundation notes. These may include:

  • fever
  • itchy skin
  • weight loss
  • breathing issues

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition and the most common form of autoimmune arthritis. It causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue in the joints. It most often affects the small joints present in the hands and feet.

Some early signs of RA may include:

  • Joint pain: While a person may not see redness or swelling in the early stages of RA, they may experience tenderness, pain, or stiffness.
  • Joint stiffness: The stiffness a person may experience is often worse in the morning and may last for 1–2 hours or longer.
  • Fatigue: An individual may experience tiredness or weakness or develop a fever.
  • Loss of appetite: The other symptoms of RA may cause a person to lose their appetite, which can contribute to weight loss.
  • Firm lumps: Also known as rheumatoid nodules, these refer to lumps that appear under the skin and typically occur on the finger joints and elbows.

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative arthritis, is the most common form of arthritis in adults and is more common in older adults.

This type of arthritis occurs due to:

  • the breakdown of cartilage
  • changes in the bones of joints
  • deterioration of tendons and ligaments
  • inflammation of the linings of joints

It typically occurs in the hands, spine, hips, knees, and toes. Some early signs of OA can include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness: Symptoms often affect commonly used joints, such as those in the hands and spine, or weight bearing joints, such as the hips and knees.
  • Cracking or grinding noise in the joint: Due to the loss of cartilage in the joint, a person may notice a crackling or crunching noise when they move the joint.
  • Joint instability: Due to a weakening of the tissues surrounding a joint, a person may feel looseness or decreased function in the joint.

With OA, a person may also experience firm, knobby swelling of joints due to bone spurs. However, these growths, also known as osteophytes, typically grow slowly over a period of time.

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that tends to affect people with psoriasis. With this skin condition, the immune system begins to target cells of the skin.

The immune system also begins to target the joints, resulting in inflammation. PsA can affect any joint in the body and can affect just one joint or multiple joints.

Some early signs of PsA could include:

  • Dactylitis: Dactylitis is inflammation of fingers and toes. The swelling can be severe, causing the digit to lose definition, which is why some people may refer to the condition as “sausage fingers.” Fingernails and toenails may also develop pitting.
  • Spondylitis: This is inflammation affecting the spine and pelvic joints. Spondylitis may cause stiffness in the back or neck and difficulty bending.
  • Enthesitis: Enthesitis is inflammation and tenderness in the sites where ligaments and tendons connect to the bone. It can cause pain at the back of the heel, on the sole of the foot, and around the elbows.

Gout is an inflammatory form of arthritis that typically occurs in short, intense bursts that come and go. Usually, it begins in the feet and often affects the big toe.

Some early signs of gout may include:

  • Sudden flares of joint pain: This can occur in many joints but typically affect the big toe. A flare often occurs at night, and pain may be severe enough to suddenly wake a person up.
  • Swollen, red, warm, and stiff joints: High levels of uric acid can result in inflammation of a joint. There may also be short, sharp bursts of pain, redness, swelling, and stiffness in a single joint
  • Flare triggers: A person may notice that certain types of food, alcohol, medication, physical trauma, or illness may trigger a flare of joint pain and inflammation.

Without treatment, a person may experience tophaceous gout. This refers to a severe form of gout where uric acid crystals form masses of white growths, known as tophi, that develop around the joints and tissues.

A person can manage their early arthritis symptoms in several ways. Some of Strategies include:

  • Being active: Participating in joint-friendly physical activity is an effective home remedy to help reduce joint pain and inflammation, the CDC advises.
  • Weight management: Maintaining a healthy weight is very important for adults with arthritis. It can help reduce stress on the joints and improve joint function.
  • Joint protection: An injury to a joint can cause or worsen arthritis. An individual can help protect their joints by avoiding high impact activity, wearing protective equipment, and avoiding repetitive joint motion.

An accurate diagnosis from a medical professional as early as possible is the best way to treat arthritis effectively. It is advisable that a person consult a doctor if they notice any of the early signs of arthritis.

A doctor will discuss which treatment options are available, including medications, physical therapy, and surgery. An individual may want to consider keeping track of their symptoms before visiting a doctor, to help with their diagnosis.

Specific symptoms of arthritis will vary depending on the type. However, general early symptoms of arthritis can include joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Getting a diagnosis of arthritis as early as possible will allow a person to start the correct treatment more quickly. Early and effective treatment can minimize a person’s symptoms and prevent them from getting any worse.

An individual can play an active role in managing and preventing early symptoms of arthritis. A person can protect their joints, take part in an active, healthy lifestyle, and speak with a doctor if they notice any early signs of arthritis.