Arthritis: Common Signs and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 09, 2024
8 min read

Arthritis is not a single condition but a category that includes more than 100 forms of arthritis and related diseases. The most common types include osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), fibromyalgia, and gout. These conditions can be very painful and may limit your ability to do some physical activities at times. There are treatments available to help with the symptoms of arthritis, including medications, exercise, hot and cold therapy, topical creams, and more.

What does arthritis feel like?

There are many different kinds of arthritis that can affect different joints in your body. Your symptoms may vary, depending on the type of arthritis you have. Most forms of arthritis have these symptoms in common:

  • Your joints may feel stiff and hard to move.
  • The area around your joints may look red or swollen or feel warm to the touch.
  • Your joints may feel painful to move or sore when you touch them.

Arthritis symptoms in hands

Many forms of arthritis can cause symptoms in your wrists, the joints of your fingers, and the base of your thumbs. These include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling (puffiness)
  • Loss of movement (opening and closing fingers) or weakness (trouble opening jars, for example)
  • Numbness

Depending on the type of arthritis you have, other symptoms may include:

  • Joint deformity or bony knots (called nodes) in your finger joints
  • Changes in fingernails, such as pitting (small dents in the surface), thickening, or separation from the nail bed
  • Red rash on joints
  • Thickened skin or sausage-like fingers that are difficult to bend
  • Red or silvery patches on hands

Arthritis symptoms in the knee

Pain, swelling, and stiffness are three of the most common symptoms of arthritis in the knee. However, these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions such as tears or sprains. Knee pain is often caused by the wearing down of cartilage (osteoarthritis). Without that protective layer, the bones and joints rub together, which leads to stiffness, pain, and loss of movement. Other symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty walking or climbing stairs
  • Your knee feels stiff and hard to bend or straighten, especially in the morning or after you’ve been sitting for a while
  • Popping or cracking sound when you move your knee
  • Grinding sensation when you move your knee
  • Your knee feels like it’s locked or stuck
  • Your knee feels unstable (like it’s going to buckle or “give”)

Early signs of arthritis

As arthritis begins, it can cause different symptoms depending on the type of arthritis. Two of the most common forms are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis often start slowly and worsen with time. At first, you may feel these symptoms in only one or a few joints. Early signs of this arthritis may include:

  • Joint pain during or after movement
  • Stiffness in joints that is most noticeable when you wake up or try to move after being inactive
  • Soreness when you touch the area around your joint
  • Grating, popping, or crackling of the joint when you use it

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often begin in the smaller joints. These include the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet. Early signs of RA include:

  • Sore, swollen, or stiff joints lasting 6 weeks or longer
  • Joint stiffness in the morning that lasts 30 minutes or longer
  • The same joints on both sides of the body are affected
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It was once thought of as a “wear-and-tear” disease that mostly came with aging. It is now known that osteoarthritis affects the whole joint, including bone, cartilage (the rubbery substance that cushions where bones connect), ligaments, fat, and the tissues lining the joint. Osteoarthritis can break down cartilage, change bone shape, and cause pain and swelling in the joints.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis may include:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness when you wake up or after you’ve been sitting for a while
  • Tenderness -- the area is sore when you touch it
  • Grating -- you might feel things rubbing together inside the joint

As osteoarthritis gets worse, you may become less active. Your symptoms may also include:

  • An inability to use your full range of motion
  • Bone spurs, which feel like hard lumps around the joint
  • Swelling or changes to the shape of the joint

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is a condition that causes your immune system (which usually fights viruses and bacteria) to attack your own body. 

RA causes the immune system to attack the lining of your joints (called the synovium). Synovial tissue produces a fluid to help your joints move smoothly. When you have RA, your synovium thickens, which makes the joint painful, swollen, and hard to move.

Most often, RA affects your hands, knees, or ankles on both sides of the body. As the disease worsens, it may affect your wrists, elbows, hips, and shoulders. It can also cause problems in your eyes, heart and circulatory system, and lungs. Women are diagnosed with RA more often than men.

Symptoms of RA may include:

  • Joint pain, swelling, and tenderness for 6 weeks or longer
  • Joint stiffness in the morning that lasts 30 minutes or longer
  • More than one joint is affected, especially small joints in your hands, wrists, and feet
  • The same joints on both sides of the body are affected

Infectious arthritis (also called septic arthritis) is a painful infection in your joint. It can happen quickly and cause permanent damage to the joint. Infectious arthritis is caused by an infection that travels through your bloodstream from one part of your body to a joint or the fluid around the joint. One of the most common causes of infectious arthritis is a type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (staph).

Symptoms of infectious arthritis may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Joint inflammation
  • Tenderness
  • Sharp pain that is related to an injury or infection elsewhere in your body

If you have signs of infectious arthritis, which can cause permanent joint damage, call your doctor right away.

Certain medications for inflammatory arthritis (such as biologics for RA) suppress your immune system and put you at a higher risk for a serious infection. Be sure to call your doctor or seek urgent care if you have any of these signs:

  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches
  • Rash
  • Severe and unusual joint pain and swelling
  • Mouth sores
  • Severe and sudden abdominal pain
  • Sudden spinal pain

You should also call your doctor about arthritis if you have concerning symptoms such as:

  • Pain and stiffness that come on quickly for no apparent reason
  • Pain that comes with a fever
  • Pain that develops quickly and is related to redness and extreme tenderness of the joint
  • Pain and stiffness in your arms, legs, or back after sitting for short periods or after a night's sleep
  • Joint symptoms (pain, swelling, limited motion) that last 3 days or longer
  • Several incidents of joint symptoms within 1 month

There are many different kinds of arthritis that affect different joints in your body. Most forms of arthritis cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in the affected joints. Symptoms and treatments may vary, depending on the type of arthritis you have.

At what age does arthritis usually start?

Just as there are many types of arthritis, there is a range of ages at which they usually start. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, usually begins in adults over age 50, but even younger people can get it, especially after they’ve injured a joint. Other kinds of arthritis, including rheumatoid and psoriatic, can develop from the age of 30, while juvenile arthritis affects children and teens under age 16.

How can I treat arthritis on my own?

There are several ways you can treat the symptoms of arthritis and improve your joint function at home. 

  • Over-the-counter medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help ease pain and reduce inflammation. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve).
  • Ointments are available at your pharmacy that contain ingredients such as menthol or capsaicin to soothe aching joints.
  • Ice packs and heating pads may also relieve pain.
  • Regular exercise and/or physical therapy can keep your joints flexible, improve your range of motion, and strengthen the muscles that support your joints.
    • Swimming and other exercises where your body is supported by water may be easier on your joints.
    • Exercises that use slow, stretching motions, like yoga and tai chi, can improve your flexibility and range of motion.
  • Certain supplements have been shown to relieve arthritis pain in some people. These include glucosamine, chondroitin, and fish oil. Ask your doctor before taking these.
  • Losing excess weight can reduce the stress on your joints and improve your ability to move.
  • Eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet may help reduce inflammation and pain.

What does arthritis pain feel like?

Arthritis pain varies depending on the type you have and which parts of your body are most affected. Arthritis can often feel like:

  • Your joints are stiff and hard to move, especially after you have been inactive for a while.
  • The area surrounding your joints is swollen or warm to the touch.
  • Your joints are painful or sore when you move or touch them.

What makes arthritis pain go away?

It may not be realistic to expect all arthritis pain to go away, but there are ways to make it more manageable.

  • Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan. Depending on the specific type of arthritis you have, there may be prescription drugs, injections, or other medical treatments that can reduce your pain and inflammation.
  • At-home treatments include over-the-counter NSAIDs, ointments, heating pads, ice packs, and supplements.
  • Regular exercise is very important for strengthening muscles that support the joints, improving flexibility, and relieving pain.
  • Acupuncture, a therapy that uses fine needles to stimulate specific points in the body, may help reduce pain.
  • Massage therapy can provide pain relief from aches and pains.
  • Eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet can help reduce inflammation and pain.