Think you’re too young to worry about arthritis? Think again…half of those who get it are under age 65, but it’s only diagnosed later after years of ignoring early, and surprising, warning signs – aside from pain, which is only one of the most common symptoms.
“Early is better with arthritis diagnosis,” says Arthritis Foundation Vice President Patience White, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.
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Treating the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis (RA) within the first months of onset, for example, can minimize joint deformities and even put the disease into remission, thanks to the latest treatments. With osteoarthritis (OA), a degenerative joint disease that’s the most common kind of arthritis, the sooner you start behavioral changes, the better you may be able to manage pain and preserve mobility, White says.
Trouble moving in the morning. Waking up and being unable to move about easily for half an hour or longer. Everybody has some morning stiffness, but normally it fades as you stretch and start moving. “With rheumatoid arthritis, it can take 30 minutes or more to loosen up — sometimes hours, or even all day,” says Chaim Putterman, chief of rheumatology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “People affected say they feel encased, like prisoners, and the feeing of being unable to move can be even more burdensome than the actual pain.”
Why pay attention: Stiffness after inactivity is a hallmark symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. It can recur later in the day when you’ve been sitting still for awhile — after watching a movie, for example. With osteoarthritis, the more you use your affected joints, the worse they tend to feel; with rheumatoid arthritis, the more you move, the better it feels, Putterman says.
Knee trouble. Your knee joint locking or sending stabs of pain when you bend it, as when going up or down stairs. Added red flag: Knee pain if you’re overweight. “Every extra pound you gain feels like four pounds across your knees,” White says. Excess weight raises your risk of developing arthritis, which some 60 percent of obese people develop.
Related types of painful physical function include limping, being unable to extend your elbow, changes in how steadily you can stand or walk, and trouble standing on tiptoe.
Why pay attention: The knee is the largest joint in the body and the second-most common site for osteoarthritis, according to White. (A bow-legged “cowboy” walk can result from osteoarthritic knees.) Other key targets: the hips, the back, the ankles, the thumbs, and the hands. “People really don’t go to the doctor until they can’t do what they want to do — lift a baby, walk a block, get out of bed easily — and pain is the number-one reason why,” White says.
Caregivers should beware of a debilitating cycle in loved ones with arthritis, Putterman says. If activity is painful, you avoid it, you stay inside more, you sit home and eat, you gain weight, which makes you even less able to get out — and before you know it, you’re on a path to losing independence.
Flu-like symptoms. Chronic tiredness, loss of appetite, weight loss, anemia, and/or fever that persists for weeks (longer than a bout of flu). Some combination of these symptoms usually appears, along with stiffness and pain. You might even notice changes in nonjoint tissue, such as eyes that feel dry and sore and may be red. These symptoms can come on gradually or suddenly.