Aging & Health A to Z
Causes & Symptoms
Factors that put you at higher risk of suffering from arthritis include:
- Getting older. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout are more common in older people.
- Being overweight or obese.
- Having previous injuries or infections that affected the joint.
- Playing sports or doing repetitive work that puts extra stress on certain joints.
- Genetics. In rheumatoid arthritis, scientists have found genes involved in the immune system that are linked to a higher risk of getting the disease.
- Gender. Women are more likely to get rheumatoid arthritis, but men suffer from gout more often than women.
Each type of arthritis has different symptoms.
The ends of your bones are covered by a slippery, cushioning substance called cartilage that acts as a shock absorber and allows your bones to slide smoothly against each other. With advancing age, injuries, or infections, your cartilage may start to deteriorate. This leaves your bones unprotected. They start to grind against each other whenever you move. Small holes and fractures start to appear in the bone surface, and bony growths—called osteophytes or bone spurs—may begin to appear. Sometimes, small bone fragments or bits of cartilage break off and interfere with the movement of the joint, causing more swelling and pain.
Eventually the underlying bone, ligaments, blood vessels, nerves and even muscles become irritated and inflamed as well. You experience joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. As it progresses, your joints may become damaged and deformed.
In this type of arthritis, your own immune system mistakenly starts to attack the tissues in your joints—particularly the synovium, a thin lining over your bones that helps keep your joints moving well. The joints become red, swollen, and tender. Eventually, the cartilage and bone is badly damaged and the joint may become severely deformed.
Scientists now think that a combination of genetic susceptibility along with some kind of trigger in the environment (such as a viral or bacterial infection) may cause the immune system to malfunction and start the rheumatoid arthritis process.
Since more women than men get rheumatoid arthritis, there may also be a connection with certain hormones.
The following are warning signs that you may be developing arthritis:
- Pain, swelling, or tenderness in one or more joints
- Cracking or crunching sounds with movement
- Warmth or redness in the joints
- Bony knobs that appear on the joints of the fingers
- A decrease in how much you can move the joint in all directions (Reduced range of motion)
Rheumatoid arthritis has some particular additional signs, such as:
- Anemia (low numbers of red blood cells)
- Dry eyes and mouth
- Inflammation in other places such as blood vessels or the lining of the lungs or the heart
- Joints on both sides of the body affected at the same time (for example, both ankles or both wrists)
- General fatigue, fevers, feeling sick, weight loss—especially when it starts in an older person
You may feel arthritis pain and other symptoms in unexpected areas. For example, if you feel tingling, weakness, or numbness in your arms or legs, you may have osteoarthritis of the spine. This can put pressure on the nerves radiating from your spinal cord, sometimes even affecting bladder or bowel function. In the same way, arthritis in your hip may be felt as pain in your groin, buttocks, inner thigh, or knees.
With rheumatoid arthritis, you are more likely to experience warmth and redness along with pain and swelling in the affected joints. You may also have a rash and fever and feel generally ill.
If you are having an attack of gout, you may also have a fever. Gout attacks often start at night.
Updated: November 2016
Posted: March 2012