Joint pain can occur for a myriad of reasons, but one main cause of recurring joint pain is arthritis, especially in aging populations. There are over 100 different subtypes of arthritis, but they generally fall into one of two main categories: inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Inflammatory arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the mechanisms that would normally protect your body attack your joints instead. The most common subtype of inflammatory arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Joints most often affected by inflammatory arthritis include:
- Small joints of the hands and feet
- Shoulders, elbows, and wrists
- Lower back, hips, and knees
Inflammatory arthritis symptoms
- Pain, swelling, or stiffness in one or more joints
- Stiffness and achiness upon waking (about one or more hours)
- Pain or stiffness that worsens during physical activity but improves with rest
- Reduced range of motion
- Symmetrical pain that appears in joints on both sides of the body
Rarely, inflammatory arthritis symptoms can also include fever, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia. However, joint pain in addition to these symptoms can indicate serious conditions that may require immediate medical attention.
While there is no cure for RA, there are medications and treatments that can help put it into remission. Your doctor may prescribe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) which can slow the progress of the disease.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that can be caused by trauma or age-related wear and tear on the joints. This type of arthritis most often affects weight-bearing joints like hips, knees, ankles, the neck, and the lower back.
- Intermittent pain with activity
- Increasing frequency of pain
- Stiffness and achiness upon waking (about 30 minute)
- Grinding in joints
When you should see a doctor
Consult a doctor if one or more joints suddenly becomes swollen, red, hot to the touch, or intolerable of bearing weight.
Before your appointment, try to make the following lists:
- Your symptoms and how long you’ve experienced them
- What makes your symptoms worse and better
- If you’ve had any surgeries or trauma in the area, like a car accident or major fall
Sports injuries suffered in high school can often cause arthritis later in life, so don’t brush off an injury just because it happened decades ago.
Possible treatment for arthritis
Arthritis has no cure, but symptoms can be managed in a variety of ways. If your symptoms are mild to severe, your primary doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist or other specialist depending on where your pain is located. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments.
- Weight loss. Weight-bearing joints are very sensitive; for every 10 pounds of weight, your joints feel 30 pounds. The less you weigh, the less weight there is to put pressure on your joints. Ask your doctor what a healthy weight loss goal should be for your symptoms, body type, lifestyle, and activity level.
- Exercise. Your instinct may tell you not to exercise if you experience arthritis pain in your knee, for example, but research shows that low-impact exercise actually helps improve pain levels in patients with arthritis. Keeping these muscles active will also help improve flexibility, stabilize the joints, and prevent atrophy.
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist may help you learn different stretches, exercises, and postural corrections to help with your symptoms. A physical therapist will work with you over a span of weeks or months so you know what does and does not work for your particular symptoms.
- Medication. Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory drugs like Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve may be recommended to treat mild pain. If your pain is more severe, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. Before you try to treat long-term arthritis pain with any type of medication, consult your pharmacist first so they can advise you on how to best protect your gut and brain health.
- Supplements. If you want to try a more natural approach in conjunction with or before resorting to OTC or prescription medication, supplements with anti-inflammatory properties like turmeric (curcumin), vitamin D, and glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have been shown to treat mild arthritis pain in some medical studies. Additionally, these supplements generally cause fewer side effects than OTC or prescription medications. Consult your pharmacist before beginning a supplement regimen as some supplements can alter the efficacy of existing medications.
- Topical treatments. Topical creams, gels, and drops are becoming more and more popular for pain-management as doctors try to steer patients away from addictive drugs like opioids. Some patients report minimized pain from using topicals like Tiger Balm and CBD oils, creams, and gels.
- Surgery. If your arthritis pain is debilitating and you and your doctor have tried every other option, they may suggest you have surgery to stabilize or replace the joint. This is a very invasive procedure and should be considered a last resort for very severe pain. As such, it is recommended you get a second opinion before committing to the surgery, which Medicare will cover.