Arthritis is the primary cause of physical impairment among American adults. According to the Arthritis Foundation, at least 54 million people over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, damages the joints, limiting the ability to perform everyday activities.
The condition usually develops gradually, noticing these early signs gives you time to slow the progression of the disease and change its course.
Early Signs of Arthritis
Women are more likely to have arthritis than men. The disease also affects sedentary individuals more than people who meet physical activity guidelines. Approximately two-thirds of people age 65 or older have osteoarthritis that shows up in an X-ray, but they may not have obvious symptoms. People of any age can get arthritis, though.
Earlier diagnosis is key. This will allow you to take advantage of treatment approaches that maximize your mobility and prevent permanent damage. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease is important.
The most recognizable sign of arthritis is joint pain. The disease is most likely to affect the knees, hips, hands, and spine, causing pain during movement. Sometimes, these areas feel tender to the touch.
Joint stiffness may also be an early indicator of arthritis. Tightness is usually worse in the morning or after you’ve been motionless for a while. The rigidity tends to go away as you get moving, making you overlook the symptom as evidence of arthritis.
Inflammation usually accompanies joint pain. You may see that the affected joints are larger than usual. Swelling can also cause discomfort and limit your range of motion.
If you feel a grating sensation or hear creaking when you use the joint, your cartilage may already be damaged. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage, which protects the bones and helps them move smoothly, wears down. Without adequate cartilage, you can feel or hear the friction that happens when your bones rub against each other.
A few cracks and pops here and there may be harmless. However, if noisy joints are accompanied by pain or inflammation, you might want to consult a physician.
If you have some of these early arthritis symptoms, you might want to discuss them with your doctor. Many people avoid talking about these problems with a health care professional because they think that they can’t do anything to manage the disease. However, experts say that identifying arthritis in the pre-disease state allows you to modify its advancement with the right treatments.
When early arthritis is caused or aggravated by an injury or overuse, physical therapy can improve your strength and mobility. You can learn how to move your body to avoid exacerbating your symptoms.
If the disease worsens, physical therapy can help you stay active so that you can maintain your level of fitness and perform daily tasks. In some cases, treating an injury right away can prevent arthritis from developing down the road.
Being overweight increases the risk of developing arthritis. Exercise can improve function and encourage weight loss, which reduces the load on the joints. However, some people shy away from exercise because they have discomfort or limited range of motion. Working with a physical therapist can help these individuals maintain adequate activity levels without hurting themselves.
Aquatic exercise (hydrotherapy) is easier on the joints than many land-based activities. Working out in warm water can ease soreness.
Some research shows that people with early signs of the disease respond better to pharmacological treatment than those in the advanced stages. Although drug therapy is usually used to relieve symptoms and doesn’t cure the disease, some medications may have the ability to reduce damage to the joint structure.
For example, NSAIDs have been shown to slow the progression of ankylosing spondylitis, a type of inflammatory arthritis that usually affects the joints in the spine. NSAIDs haven’t been clinically proven to help with other types of arthritis, but they may improve pain.
Acetaminophen is usually offered as the first line of treatment, though. It reduces pain and it’s inexpensive.
Opioid analgesics are stronger pain relievers that are usually reserved for late-stage treatment. These medications have a high potential for abuse and must be regulated carefully by your physician.
Topical analgesics are associated with fewer side effects than oral medications. Lidocaine, ibuprofen, and diclofenac are shown to relieve pain caused by acute and chronic joint damage.
Although the FDA doesn’t allow supplement manufacturers to make specific disease claims, there is some evidence that certain supplements can protect cartilage and reduce inflammation. Some of these include:
- Chondroitin sulfate
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin C
- Devil’s claw
Misalignment may be responsible for certain types of joint damage. Correcting the positioning with orthotics may slow disease progression. This is a biomechanical approach and may involve placing insoles in the shoes or wearing a brace. Using this form of treatment could help people with early signs of arthritis avoid surgery.
Surgery is an invasive treatment option for arthritis. It’s often used when other approaches don’t deliver results. Some options for surgical joint procedures to treat arthritis include:
- Arthroscopy – This is often performed on younger, active patients and involves fixing soft-tissue tears and damaged cartilage laparoscopically. No long-term studies prove that arthroscopy prevents further damage.
- Joint resurfacing – During this partial knee replacement, a surgeon replaces part of the joint to reduce friction.
- Osteotomy – This procedure involves removing or adding bone to shift the load to an area that is not affected by arthritis. It is often used on patients who are too young for a total joint replacement.
- Synovectomy – This reduces inflammation and overgrowth in the joint lining when anti-inflammatories aren’t effective. Synovectomy may provide only temporary results.
- Total joint replacement – An implant is inserted to replace the joint. This surgery is generally safe and successful in reducing pain and improving quality of life.
Do Your Research
Don’t ignore early signs of arthritis just because you may think they’re normal aches and pains or you assume that you’re too young to develop this disease. Early intervention could change the course of the condition as you age.
It’s essential to explore different treatment options. Managing arthritis in the beginning stages could prevent you from requiring more invasive approaches.