Diagnosing Arthritis: Do I Have It?

Sufferers of arthritis and rheumatic diseases experience pain, swelling and stiffness in joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles.

What Is Arthritis?

Many people start to feel pain and stiffness in their bodies over time. Sometimes their hands or knees or hips get sore and are hard to move. These people may have arthritis (ar-THRY-tis).

Image of male body.

Any part of your body can become inflamed or painful from arthritis.

Arthritis is an illness that can cause pain and swelling in your joints. Over time, the joint can become severely damaged. Joints are places where two bones meet, such as your elbow or knee. Some kinds of arthritis can cause problems in other organs, such as your eyes, or in your chest. It can affect your skin, too.

These problems may be caused by inflammation (in-flah-MAY-shun), a swelling that can include pain or redness. They are telling you that something is wrong.

Some people may worry that arthritis means they won’t be able to work or take care of their children and their family. Others think that you just have to accept things like arthritis.

It’s true that arthritis can be painful. But there are things you can do to feel better. This booklet tells you some facts about arthritis and gives you some ideas about what to do, so you can keep doing the things you want to do.

There are several kinds of arthritis. The two most common ones are rheumatoid (ROO-mah-toyd) arthritis and osteoarthritis (AH-stee-oh-ar-THRY-tis).

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. This is the form that usually comes with age and most often affects the fingers, knees, and hips. Sometimes osteoarthritis follows an injury to a joint. For example, a young person might hurt his knee badly playing soccer. Then, years after the knee has apparently healed, he might get arthritis in his knee joint.

Father and son play football

A sports injury to a knee when a person is young can lead to athritis years later.

Rheumatoid arthritis happens when the body’s own defense system doesn’t work properly. It affects joints, bones, and organs–often the hands and feet. You may feel sick or tired, and you may have a fever.

Other conditions can also cause arthritis. Some include:

  • Gout, in which crystals build up in the joints. It usually affects the big toe.
  • Lupus (LOOP-us), in which the body’s defense system can harm the joints, the heart, the skin, the kidneys, and other organs.
  • Viral hepatitis (VY-rul HEP-ah-TY-tis), in which an infection of the liver can cause arthritis.

Lady writing a letter.

Rheumatoid arthritis can make it hard to hold a pencil or a brush.

Do I Have Arthritis?

Pain is the way your body tells you that something is wrong. Most kinds of arthritis cause pain in your joints. You might have trouble moving around. Some kinds of arthritis can affect different parts of your body. So, along with the arthritis, you may:

  • Have a fever.
  • Lose weight.
  • Have trouble breathing.
  • Get a rash or itch.

These symptoms may also be signs of other illnesses.

Woman gardening.

Having stiffness or pain when you move could be a sign of arthritis.

What Can I Do?

Go see a doctor. Many people use herbs or medicines that you can buy without a prescription for pain. You should tell your doctor if you do. Only a doctor can tell if you have arthritis or a related condition and what to do about it. It’s important not to wait.

You’ll need to tell the doctor how you feel and where you hurt. The doctor will examine you and may take x rays (pictures) of your bones or joints. The x rays don’t hurt and aren’t dangerous. You may also have to give a little blood for tests that will help the doctor decide if you have arthritis and what kind you have.

Doctor examines x-ray with patient.

The x rays will tell the doctor what is happening to the bones and joints inside your body.

How Will the Doctor Help?

After the doctor knows what kind of arthritis you have, he or she will talk with you about the best way to treat it. The doctor may give you a prescription for medicine that will help with the pain, stiffness, and inflammation. Health insurance or public assistance may help you pay for the medicine, doctor visits, tests, and x rays.

Patient receiving medicine from a pharmacist.

To get your medicine, take your prescription to your local drugstore or send it to your mail-order provider.

How Should I Use Arthritis Medicine?

Before you leave the doctor’s office, make sure you ask about the best way to take the medicine the doctor prescribes. For example, you may need to take some medicines with milk, or you may need to eat something just before or after taking them, to make sure they don’t upset your stomach.

You should also ask how often to take the medicine or to put cream on the spots that bother you. Creams might make your skin and joints feel better. Sometimes, though, they can make your skin burn or break out in a rash. If this happens, call the doctor.

Woman at breakfast table taking arthritis medicine.

You may need to drink milk or eat when you take your medicine.

What If I Still Hurt?

Sometimes you might still have pain after using your medicine. Here are some things to try:

  • Take a warm shower.
  • Do some gentle stretching exercises.
  • Use an ice pack on the sore area.
  • Rest the sore joint.

If you still hurt after using your medicine correctly and doing one or more of these things, call your doctor. Another kind of medicine might work better for you. Some people can also benefit from surgery, such as joint replacement.

Man resting on couch with ice pack on his neck.

Using an ice pack on a sore joint can help relieve pain.

You Can Feel Better!

Arthritis can damage your joints, organs, and skin. There are things you can do to keep the damage from getting worse. They might also make you feel better.

  • Try to keep your weight down. Too much weight can make your knees and hips hurt.
  • Exercise. Moving all of your joints will help you. The doctor or nurse can show you how to move more easily. Going for a walk every day will help, too.
  • Take your medicines when and how you are supposed to. They can help reduce pain and stiffness.
  • Try taking a warm shower in the morning.
  • See your doctor regularly.
  • Seek information that can help you.

Woman in a swimming pool.

Keeping active may help reduce the stiffness in your joints.

For More Help

For more information on arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases, contact any of the following organizations:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Information Clearinghouse
National Institutes of Health
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
(301) 495-4484
Toll free: (877) 22-NIAMS
TTY: (301) 565-2966
Fax: (301) 718-6366
World Wide Web address: http://www.niams.nih.gov/hi/

The NIAMS, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), leads the Federal Government research effort in arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases in the United States. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse is a public service sponsored by the NIAMS.

Arthritis Foundation
1330 West Peachtree Street
Atlanta, GA 30309
(800) 283-7800
(404) 872-7100 or your local chapter listed in the telephone book.
World Wide Web address: http://www.arthritis.org/

The Arthritis Foundation is the major voluntary organization devoted to supporting arthritis research and providing education and other services to people with arthritis. This foundation publishes free pamphlets on arthritis, as well as arthritis self-help books in English and Spanish.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
P.O. Box 2058
Des Plaines, IL 60017
Phone: 800-824-BONE (2663) (free of charge)
World Wide Web address: http://www.aaos.org/

The academy provides education and practice management services for orthopaedic surgeons and allied health professionals. It also serves as an advocate for improved patient care and informs the public about the science of orthopaedics. The orthopaedist’s scope of practice includes disorders of the body’s bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. For a single copy of an AAOS brochure, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the address above or visit the AAOS Web site.

American College of Rheumatology
1800 Century Place, Suite 250
Atlanta, GA 30345
(404) 633-3777
Fax: (404) 633-1870
World Wide Web address: http://www.rheumatology.org/

This association provides referrals to doctors and health professionals who work on arthritis, rheumatic diseases, and related conditions. The association also provides educational materials and guidelines.

In Appreciation

The NIAMS thanks the following people and organizations for their contribution to this project:

Janet Howard, NIAMS/NIH; John Klippel, M.D., NIAMS/NIH; Graciela S. Alarcón, M.D., M.P.H., University of Alabama at Birmingham; Virginia Gonzá;lez, M.P.H., Stanford Patient Education Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, CA; Carlos Lavernia, M.D., Miami, FL; the Arthritis Foundation; the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; and the American College of Rheumatology for help in preparing and reviewing this booklet. Eagle Design & Management, Inc., Bethesda, MD, designed and illustrated the booklet.

Special thanks go to the patients with arthritis who reviewed this publication and provided valuable input.

Do You Have Arthritis or a Related Condition?

You may be able to help scientists learn more about these conditions.

For information about research projects near your home, call the

NIAMS Information Clearinghouse

(301) 495-4484

You could make a difference!

Publication Date: February 2000, Revised July 2001

Source: NIAMS

The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. The NIAMS Information Clearinghouse is a public service sponsored by the NIAMS that provides health information and information sources. Additional information and research updates can be found on the NIAMS Web site at http://www.niams.nih.gov/hi/.

This booklet is provided by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in cooperation with the Arthritis Foundation (Fundación Para La Artritis).

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