In the United States, arthritis is a leading cause of work disability, affecting over 53.2 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can happen for a number of reasons to adults at any age ― and the pain can be debilitating.
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, but there are also other forms like gout, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus that can cause widespread symptoms. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that can damage cartilage and cause inflammation, according to Dr. Pamela Mehta, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Resilience Orthopedics and member of the FIGS advisory board.
We spoke to Mehta and other experts about early signs of the condition you should never ignore:
Your joint hurts.
Joint pain is one of the most obvious and common signs of arthritis, said Dr. Mengnai Li, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine.
“Typically people will experience greater pain while walking on slopes, uneven surfaces and climbing stairs,” he said. Even clothing items like socks and shoes may be painful, he added.
You experience joint pain first thing in the morning.
If you experience pain in your joints first thing in the morning after you wake up, there’s a strong likelihood it can be from osteoarthritis.
“An early sign of arthritis is if you experience pain after waking up and getting out of bed in the morning after sleeping for hours,” Mehta explained.
Your joint appears swollen.
If your joint appears swollen, it could be as a result of excess synovial fluid ― a thick liquid that provides lubrication and cushioning.
“When osteoarthritis happens, there will be increased volume of synovial fluid production with associated inflammation, causing pain and swelling,” Li said.
Your joint feels stiff after you get up from lying down.
According to both Mehta and Li, an early sign of arthritis is joint stiffness after getting up from lying down.
“A lot of my patients with knee osteoarthritis will experience stiffness after they wake up from resting or have been sitting in a chair for a while,” Mehta said.
You feel cracking or grating sounds.
Sometimes, you may hear cracking, popping or grating sounds in your joints — even if it doesn’t cause any pain.
These sounds may signal how the cartilage in your joint is breaking down as a result of arthritis, Li noted.
Your pain may improve after taking an anti-inflammatory.
“Arthritis is an inflammatory cascade. Taking an non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) will almost always relieve arthritic pain,” Mehta said.
If you think you may have joint pain, taking an NSAID to temporarily relieve the pain can be a first step.
Your joint pain is accompanied by other symptoms.
If your arthritis is a result of another condition like rheumatoid arthritis or gout, you may also notice other signs of the problem. For rheumatoid arthritis, that could be tenderness in multiple joints in your body, weight loss and fatigue. For gout, you may notice redness and swelling near your ankle or foot, in particular. For lupus, you might also experience muscle pain, light sensitivity, hair loss or fever.
While there’s no cure for arthritis, there are some steps you can take to manage your symptoms. Visit your primary care provider right away to discuss treatment options so the pain doesn’t persist.