Recognizing this inflammatory condition at the start is key to establishing an effective treatment plan.

By Deanna deBara
December 12, 2019

According to the Center for Disease Control, 23 percent of adults in America suffer from arthritis, making it an extremely common condition. But even though arthritis is quite pervasive, most people don't know its early signs and symptoms—and, as a result, may not even know they have arthritis at all. But understanding how arthritis presents itself—especially at the beginning—is critical, so you can begin managing the inflammatory disease sooner rather than later.

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The most common sign of arthritis—and the sign you're going to notice first—is pain, says Dr. Daniel Paull, Orthopedic Surgeon and Founder and CEO of Easy Orthopedics. "Arthritis is the process of cartilage wearing away, and when this happens it usually causes pain with movement, which can be worse in weight-bearing joints such as the knee, hip, and ankle." Stiffness and a decreased range of motion in your joints is another early flag. "Some lesser known signs of arthritis are morning stiffness and loss of range of motion, mostly at the extremes, [like] how far you can bend your knee," says Dr. Paull. "Arthritic joints don't glide as smoothly as normal joints, and over time can cause you to lose range of motion due to pain or mechanical blockage."

These symptoms, however, distinguish the early days of just one subset of arthritis. "If we are discussing normal day-to-day arthritis, called osteoarthritis, the first signs that are meaningful would be stiff and/or painful joints," says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, founder of Vitality 101. "Rheumatoid arthritis is a different story, however. The underlying inflammation from the autoimmune condition may simply present as fatigue."

Related: Why Your Mental Outlook on Arthritis Matters

While fatigue is a pretty common experience—and doesn't, in and of itself, point to rheumatoid arthritis—if paired with other markers or symptoms, it definitely warrants further investigation. "[Fatigue] in itself would not leave me looking for rheumatoid arthritis unless the blood tests for inflammation are elevated [and] the person is having the paradox of severe insomnia despite being exhausted," says Dr. Teitelbaum. "When this is present, it suggests a secondary fibromyalgia triggered by rheumatoid arthritis."

If you're experiencing any or all of the above, don't panic, notes Dr. Paull. "Not everyone with arthritis has pain, and many can live perfectly normal lives with an arthritic joint." Getting ahead of osteoarthritis' symptoms will help alleviate the stress surrounding them, he says, noting that strengthening specific muscle groups that interact with joints can "increase stability and decrease stress—thereby diminishing pain." Weight loss can have a similar effect, he notes.

While the early signs of osteoarthritis can often be managed at home, if you suspect your symptoms align more with rheumatoid arthritis, it's important to schedule an appointment with your doctor. "For rheumatoid arthritis, early treatment can prevent joint destruction, so the rules are different," says Dr. Teitelbaum. "If you see joint swelling with morning stiffness, or have widespread aches and exhaustion associated with insomnia, it is worth doing screening blood tests."

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