What Does Arthritis Feel Like?

It's estimated that 20% of Americans are affected by arthritis in at least one joint, and it is more common among women, and occurs more frequently as people age. The disease sometimes develops from an injury, or after many years of use as the shock absorbing cartilage that normally cushions the joints wear away. What does arthritis feel like? It depends on which joint is affected, the type of arthritis, and how long the disease has had time to develop.

What Does Arthritis Feel Like?

In all types of arthritis, the area around a joint, such as the wrist, knee, or elbow, can become red, swollen, and tender to the touch. It may also feel warm, and people afflicted with arthritis explain that their condition puts limitations on both physical and social issues in their lives.

  • Physical limitations: It affects their ability to walk more than short distances, lift or grasp objects, or their ability to bend over. As the arthritis progresses, it interferes with every aspect of daily life, such as using the toilet, and personal hygiene like grooming and bathing. Routine tasks become arduous, such as laundry, shopping, and household cleaning.
  • Social limitations: Arthritis, and the chronic pain associated with it, also affects people's social and leisure activities, straining marriages and partnerships. A shift in care-giving responsibilities and impacts on sexual activities sometimes complicate matters further. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from arthritis may feel a loss of control and helplessness that often leads to depression.

Personal Experiences with Arthritis

"When I get it in my spine, it's sharp and sudden inducing spasm. It hits randomly, but is worse at night. When it hits my hips, it's like a constant ache when I am walking; however, if I overextend/rotate it, the pain is sharp and sudden. For my fingers and toes, it's as if someone took a hammer to them, or I've jammed them in a door. They become hot, swollen, and almost unusable." - Dorothy

"What does arthritis feel like? My arthritis feels horrible as it hits me in a couple of different ways. Whenever the weather changes, the joints in my hands and knees feel like a bad toothache. If I overuse my weight-bearing joints at the hips, it feels like I'm grinding up glass shards." - Jim

"My arthritis can be anything from a gnawing ache to severe pain. I'm not sure why the intensity changes, but I think the weather makes a difference, overusing the joint, or maybe even what activity I am doing. The arthritis is my knees become worse when I climb the stairs, and they sometimes give out altogether. Of course bending over a lot tends to cause my lower back and hips to aching."  - Mary

"It's really difficult to say…For me, the pain is sharp and extreme just like you've ripped your muscle! Or it feels like someone is hitting you really hard with a hammer." -Troy

"My pain always changes. It could be my feet and legs which feel a burning and pulling sensation. Or it could be my hands that feel so tight and sore that I couldn't even more my fingers." - Ritu

How to Describe Your Pain

To determine whether your pain is due to rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or another type of arthritis, your physician will ask you some questions about your pain, how it affects your body and life, when it happens, and how severe it gets. Your physician might also ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 (very little pain) to 10 (severe pain).

Before you speak with your physician, think about the words you'll use to describe your joint pain. Here are some terms that can help your physician to get the full picture. Pick the ones that most accurately describe your arthritis pain when asked, what does arthritis feel like?

  • Aching: a continuous, sore pain
  • Throbbing: feel pain in a series of regular beats
  • Hot or burning: to feel heat or a physiologically similar sensation
  • Sharp: piercing physical sensation or effect
  • Shooting: sudden severe pains that move through the body
  • Dull: is generally like a constant spread out pain
  • Grinding: crackling or grating sensation and/or sound in the body

Early Symptoms of Arthritis

Still wondering "What does arthritis feel like?" Here're some early symptoms for different types of arthritis that could help you to get a better idea of it.

1. Early Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Osteoarthritis is degeneration of weight-bearing joint cartilage and the underlying bone, and with no cushioning to protect it, the joint swells and becomes hard to move. It causes pain and stiffness, especially in the knees, hips, and lower back, but also joints of the fingers and toes. Symptoms are often noticed in the morning, and it takes a few minutes for the joints to get moving again. Depending on the joint affected, osteoarthritis can make it difficult to walk, open jars, or even bend over.

2. Early Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

A chronic progressive disease called rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in the joints that results in painful deformities and immobility, in the fingers, feet, wrists, and ankles. It causes pain and swelling, usually the small joints of the fingers and toes, or sometimes a lager joint, such as the knee or ankle. The disease is symmetrical, meaning that if your right big toe is swollen and painful, your left big toe will be as well. In addition to joint problems, other effects can include the skin, eyes, lungs and blood vessels.

3. Early Psoriatic Arthritis Symptoms

An auto-immune disorder, Psoriatic arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. Psoriatic arthritis also affects some people who have psoriasis, a condition that features red patches of skin and crumbling nails. The main symptoms of psoriatic arthritis are joint pain, stiffness and swelling. Moreover, they can affect any part of your body, including your spine and fingertips, and can range from relatively mild to severe. However, with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, symptoms may alternate with periods of remission.

4. Early Gout Symptoms

Gout is a disease in which a faulty metabolism of uric acid causes arthritis, especially in the smaller bones of the feet with deposits of chalkstones (chalky deposit of sodium urate), and acute pain. Gout is also a complex form of arthritis that is characterized by severe and sudden attacks of pain, and tenderness in joints, often attacking the large joint of the big toe. Although men are more likely to get gout, women become increasingly susceptible to gout symptoms after menopause.

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