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What does arthritis feel like? Symptoms and more

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How it feelsOther symptomsTreatmentsSummary
Arthritis is a long-term, progressive condition that causes inflammation in your body. It mostly results in joint pain, stiffness, and swelling if you do not seek medical treatment.
Medically reviewed by Stella Bard, MD
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

Arthritis happens when the cartilage that typically cushion your bones does not work correctly.

This can be due to various reasons, and there are over 100 types of arthritis, each with different symptoms and causes. These often include inflammation or general wear and tear.

This loss of cushioning causes pain and swelling in the joints. Depending on where the arthritis is most severe, it can make daily function difficult, such as climbing stairs or opening jars.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 54 million adults in America are diagnosed with some type of arthritis. However, it is most likely double this number, with many people experiencing symptoms but never receiving a diagnosis.

What does it feel like?

Two older adults with arthritis walking outside to show what arthritis feels like.
Gencho Petkov/Stocksy United

Typically, the morning time is when you first notice any joint pain, swelling, or stiffness. It is important to note where the pain is and the type of pain you feel.

Pain and swelling

Arthralgia, or pain in a joint, is most commonly the first sign of most types of arthritis. It can feel like a dull ache or a burning sensation. This is often worse after heavy use of the specific joint, for example, feeling pain in your knees after using the stairs.

A doctor will check the joint that is painful for signs of inflammation. When this happens, the joint will appear swollen. This is due to excess synovial fluid, which makes the joint smooth when it bends.

When there is inflammation in a joint, it produces too much of this fluid. This swelling can be painful and restrict your movement further.

Early signs of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis resulting from general wear and tear of weight-bearing joints over time. Large weight-bearing joints include:

  • lower back
  • hips
  • knees

It also affects other joints, such as the fingers, toes, and neck. Symptoms of affected joints are typically worse when you have not used painful joints for a while, for example, in the morning. This pain can slowly disappear as you use the joint again.

Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that also causes swelling and pain in your joints. In RA, you are more likely to first experience pain in your fingers and toes. Stiffness is more common in the morning.

If you have RA, any pain or joint stiffness is symmetrical. For example, if you experience pain in your left thumb, you will experience pain in your right thumb. As RA progresses, other symptoms in your organs can develop, like in your lungs and heart.

Early signs of psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is another type of inflammatory arthritis that affects about 30% of people who also have the skin condition psoriasis. PsA most often develops after psoriasis. However, you may experience joint pain before any skin issues.

Symptoms include:

Other symptoms of arthritis

While pain and stiffness in various joints are the most common symptoms of arthritis, other symptoms can develop, particularly if arthritis continues to progress without treatment. For example:

  • fatigue
  • low grade fever
  • loss of appetite
  • formation of nodules below the skin
  • anemia
  • dry eyes
  • inflammation of the lungs


Arthritis can be a slowly progressing condition, where you only notice feeling slightly sorer and stiffer than usual. As soon as you start feeling pain and soreness in your joints, seek advice from a healthcare professional immediately. The sooner you receive treatment, the better.

Earlier treatment can help prevent permanent damage to your bone and joints. Working with a rheumatologist can help you find the best combination of treatments for you.

Some medications that a rheumatologist may recommend include:

ExamplesHow does it work?
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)• naproxen (Naprosyn) • ibuprofen (Advil)NSAIDs help reduce inflammation and swelling around the joint. Available as a topical solution or oral tablets.
    Corticosteroids• prednisolone (Millpred) • hydrocortisone injections (Solu-cortef)These are fast-working anti-inflammatory medications. They are chemically like the naturally occurring cortisol — a hormone that reduces inflammation.
    Antimalarials• hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil)These medications typically help prevent contracting malaria but can help reduce inflammation and symptoms of RA.

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There are also many different types of at-home and natural methods for managing arthritis.

Some of these include:

  • Physical therapy: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical therapy and slow exercises, such as walking, yoga, and swimming, can improve joint mobility and reduce pain.
  • Supplements: Chondroitin and turmeric, among other supplements, can help reduce joint pain and protect the cartilage in your joints from permanent damage.
  • Acupuncture: This traditional practice of inserting tiny needles into the skin is proven to help reduce pain from arthritis.


The first signs of arthritis often feel like pain and stiffness in your joints. Where you experience the pain will be different depending on the type of arthritis you have. For example, rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical, so if you feel stiffness in one hand, you will notice it in the other.

It is important to talk with a healthcare professional to avoid further symptoms. Sticking to the treatment plan a doctor recommends, along with any lifestyle changes, is necessary to prevent the progression of your condition.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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