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Arthritis Awareness Month: Recognizing the Early Signs of Arthritis

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arthritis drawing graphic

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. The Arthritis Foundation conservatively estimates that one in five American adults have arthritis in at least one joint. Impacting women more than men and veterans more than non-veterans, arthritis can make daily life a struggle, with many people experiencing pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.  

Understanding the early warning signs and receiving treatment early can improve your health outcomes and help you manage the condition. 

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that affects a joint, such as the joints of the knees, shoulders, fingers, and toes. Joints are where two or more bones meet in the body and aid in mobility. Encased in a joint capsule or articular capsule, a thick fluid helps lubricate the joint, and ligaments work like strong rubber bands to hold our bones in place. At the end of the bones is a tough tissue layer known as cartilage that allows the bones to slide against each other when you move. Muscles and tendons also support the joint.  

When there is swelling or tenderness in a joint, this is known as arthritis. This swelling can be caused by inflammation or when cartilage, which cushions the bone, is not functioning properly. A chronic condition, arthritis will continue to worsen over time and require ongoing care. Several risk factors increase your chances of arthritis, including family history, past injuries, age, gender, and weight. 

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Arthritis Awareness: Inflammatory vs. Osteoarthritis

More than 100 unique conditions qualify as arthritis, each with different warning signs, symptoms, and impacts. However, these conditions fall into two primary categories: inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis (OA). 

Our bodies have a handy self-defense mechanism that protects us from infections and illnesses: the immune system. However, the immune system can malfunction and begin to attack itself. When this occurs, it is known as an autoimmune disorder. Inflammatory arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the joints and surrounding tissues. Much like the immune system is usually a superb toolbox in our body, inflammation is a valuable tool that helps send extra blood and fluid to aid in the fight against infection. But when the immune system is faulty, the inflammation it sends to your joints is unnecessary and can overwhelm the joint, causing inflammatory arthritis. The most well-known form of inflammatory arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. 

Osteoarthritis is a deteriorating disorder typically caused by trauma to a joint, such as a past injury, or wear-and-tear on joints over time, which is commonly age-related. Medical professionals usually find that OA occurs in weight-bearing joints like the hip, knees, spine, or big toe, but it can also be found in finger joints. 

7 Early Warning Signs of Arthritis

Symptoms of arthritis vary depending on the type of arthritis. Even for an individual with arthritis, their own personal symptoms can differ from day to day and change in severity. Furthermore, arthritis can come on so slowly that it is possible to be unaware that you have the condition. Nevertheless, there are some early warning signs you should be aware of: 

  • Pain 
    Generally, the first sign of arthritis is pain, known as arthralgia. This pain is not a singular occurrence but happens routinely and does not go away after a few days. It can feel like a dull ache or is sometimes described as a burning sensation, usually at the joint or surrounding area. An example of this is repeated pain in the groin or buttocks, which could be a sign of arthritis in the hip. A particular activity, like running, could trigger pain from arthritis or may be present at the beginning or end of the day.  
  • Swelling & Tenderness 
    When a joint is in pain, it may also become tender and swollen. This swelling results from increased fluid meant to cushion and lubricate the joint, with too much fluid causing joint inflammation. Joint inflammation can restrict movement and be painful when you press down on the joint. 
  • Stiffness 
    Joint stiffness usually occurs after a period of inactivity, such as when you wake up in the morning or stay in one position too long, like after a long drive. Depending on the level of damage in the joint, this stiffness can last 30 minutes or longer and decrease your range of motion or, eventually, eliminate it entirely. 
  • Redness 
    Redness around a joint may indicate inflammation or infection in the joint. A red, scaly rash on the elbows, back, buttocks, knees, or scalp could be psoriasis, which can be an early warning sign of psoriatic arthritis. 
  • Fever or Heat at the Joint 
    A fever can be a symptom of many different medical conditions, including the onset of arthritis. That’s because your body temperature can rise in response to inflammatory arthritis, similar to when fighting an infection. Likewise, warm or hot joints can be a sign of inflammation, infection, or injury and a sign of more severe forms of arthritis. 
  • Overall Discomfort 
    Often referred to by medical professionals as malaise, this is when you have an overall feeling of being unwell or ill. This could be because of the pain, inflammation, and other symptoms caused by arthritis. 
  • Unrelenting Fatigue 
    This is more than being tired after a night of little sleep or after a long work week. This is excessive, persistent, deep-rooted fatigue and does not seem to dissipate no matter how much sleep or rest you receive. This can be caused by ongoing inflammation and pain. 

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or a combination, it’s important to talk to your doctor. 

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Arthritis Treatment & Health Outcomes

It is common for everyone to have joint pains and aches from time to time, especially after strenuous physical activity or overusing a part of the body that is not typically active. But you should contact your doctor when you have pain, swelling, or stiffness that cannot be explained or does not go away after a few days. 

Arthritis is a progressive disorder that will worsen over time and possibly permanently damage your joints. By recognizing your symptoms early and getting treatment as soon as possible, there are steps and care plans that can help minimize your pain and other symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.  

Regenerative medicine holds the greatest promising potential in treating and alleviating arthritis symptoms. Through techniques such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, this treatment aims to repair damaged tissues and promote cartilage regeneration in arthritic joints, offering hope for long-term relief and even restoration of joint function. While research in this field is still ongoing, early studies and clinical trials have shown encouraging results, suggesting that regenerative medicine could revolutionize arthritis treatment in the future. 

Another possible alternative treatment for arthritis that has gained attention is ozone therapy. This therapy uses ozone gas administered at the affected joints to purportedly reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. While some small-scale studies have reported positive outcomes, more extensive randomized controlled trials are ongoing to validate its effectiveness as a mainstream arthritis treatment option. 

In addition to regenerative medicine and ozone therapy, various integrative therapies have been explored for managing arthritis symptoms with much success, such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, herbal supplements, and dietary modifications. While these treatments may offer symptomatic relief for some individuals, their effectiveness can vary widely from patient to patient. 

As research into the treatment for arthritis continues to evolve, you should consult with your physician and healthcare team to explore the most appropriate treatment options based on your needs and circumstances. At Family Integrative Medicine, we work with you to design a personalized, comprehensive care plan unique to your arthritic condition, health history, and lifestyle. Our experienced, knowledgeable medical team takes a holistic, integrative approach to your care that is focused on optimizing your health outcomes and improving your quality of life. 

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