Inflammatory arthritis describes a group of conditions where the body’s cells attack the tissue in the joints. A person with arthritis experiences pain, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion in the affected joints.

Arthritis is an umbrella term to describe inflammation of one or more joints. Various types of arthritis exist, which doctors classify as either inflammatory or noninflammatory.

Inflammatory arthritis involves inflammation that occurs due to the immune system attacking the connective tissues in the joints. The most common forms are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and psoriatic arthritis. Without treatment, inflammatory arthritis can lead to damage and deformity of joints, which can be disabling.

Noninflammatory types, such as osteoarthritis, also involve inflammation. However, this typically occurs due to normal wear and tear of the joints affecting the cartilage.

This article looks at inflammatory arthritis, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

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Inflammatory arthritis refers to a group of arthritic conditions. They typically cause inflammation symptoms, such as pain, skin discoloration, and swelling.

People may develop these conditions when the immune system mistakenly releases inflammatory chemicals that cause damage to healthy connective tissue or cartilage in the joints and throughout the body.

The resulting inflammation harms joint tissues and causes a person to experience symptoms. Because inflammatory arthritis often affects the whole body, a person may have inflammatory symptoms in the skin, eyes, and mouth.

Some common types of inflammatory arthritis include:

  • Axial spondyloarthritis: Axial spondyloarthritis mainly affects the spine and sacroiliac joints, which connect the hip bones to the spine. This condition tends to run in families.
  • Gout: Gout is a form of arthritis that develops when there is too much uric acid — a waste product — in the body. The excess uric acid can form crystals in the joints, causing inflammation and pain.
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA): JIA is the most common type of arthritis in children. It is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in one or more joints and can lead to long-term damage.
  • Lupus: Lupus is an autoimmune condition that can cause inflammation in various organs and tissues, including the joints.
  • Psoriatic arthritis: This form of arthritis particularly affects those with psoriasis, a skin condition. It develops when the immune system starts attacking healthy joints and skin tissue.
  • RA: This is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system begins to attack healthy tissue in the lining of joints.

Inflammatory arthritis symptoms can include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • warmth
  • tenderness
  • stiff joints

Joint stiffness can cause movement difficulties, particularly in the morning after waking.

Other symptoms can include:

Various factors can cause the symptoms associated with inflammatory arthritis, including:

  • Synovitis: When inflamed, the synovium, the membrane that lines the joints, releases chemicals that irritate nerves and increase joint fluid.
  • Bone erosion: Inflammatory arthritis can cause bone erosion, destruction, and loss. As more bone is lost, deformation may occur in the joint.
  • Swollen joint capsules: Fluid buildup causes pressure, stiffness, and pain.
  • Ligament damage: Inflammation damages the supportive ligaments in the joint.
  • Muscle weakness: As muscles lose strength, there is more stress on joints.
  • Joint fusion: In some forms of inflammatory arthritis, the small bones that make up the backbone may join together, causing pain and loss of mobility.

A diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis begins with a physical examination.

The doctor checks for signs of inflammation, such as swelling, warmth, and discoloration in the joints. They will also ask about the person’s symptoms and medical history.

The doctor may order blood tests, including:

  • a complete blood count to measure different blood cell levels
  • tests for rheumatoid factor and cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies, proteins often present in RA
  • tests that might indicate inflammation, such as C-reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate
  • a uric acid test, which measures the levels of uric acid and is useful for diagnosing gout

Imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRI tests may also help the doctor diagnose inflammatory arthritis.

Learn more about how doctors diagnose RA here.

The goal of treatment for inflammatory arthritis is to:

  • reduce inflammation and pain
  • protect joint tissue
  • prevent further damage

Treatment may include physical therapy and the following medications, either in combination or alone:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) may help people with mild to moderate symptoms.
  • Corticosteroids: Injections and oral corticosteroid medications may help provide short-term relief from inflammation.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): DMARDs can help slow the progression of RA and other forms of inflammatory arthritis.
  • Biologic agents: These are newer medications that target specific areas of the immune system. Doctors may prescribe them to treat certain types of moderate to severe inflammatory arthritis.

A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in inflammatory arthritis.

These medical professionals can help people find the best treatment for their condition. Rheumatologists can also provide support and guidance, advising a person on how to manage the impact their condition may have on their quality of life.

Below are answers to some common questions about inflammatory arthritis.

What is the difference between inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that occurs when cartilage in the joints breaks down. This usually occurs due to wear and tear as a person ages. Inflammatory arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks healthy joint tissue.

Both conditions may involve inflammation, but they are different types of arthritis.

What is seronegative inflammatory arthritis?

There are two main subtypes of RA. In seropositive RA, blood tests typically show high levels of antibodies called anti-cyclic citrullinated peptides. According to the current definition, people with seronegative RA do not have these antibodies in their blood. However, some experts dispute this.

What is the best treatment?

The best treatment for inflammatory arthritis depends on the individual and the extent of their condition. Some people may only require NSAIDs, while others may need DMARDs or biological agents. Therefore, it is important to work with a rheumatologist to develop a treatment plan that is right for the individual.

Inflammatory arthritis is arthritis that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks healthy joint tissue. It can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints.

There are several types of inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and gout.

Diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis begins with a physical examination and may involve blood and imaging tests. The goal of treatment is to reduce inflammation and pain, protect joint tissue, and prevent further damage. Treatment options include physical therapy and medications.