There are different causes for joint pain as you age, but much of it can be attributed to arthritis. However, with over 100 different types of arthritis, it is important to visit a doctor at the first sign of joint problems. Arthritis is generally caused by overuse—the cartilage that cushions the joints and absorbs shock starts to break down over time—but injuries or being overweight can also cause premature cartilage loss. However, it can also be caused by other conditions such as autoimmune disorders.
There are many symptoms of arthritis besides just pain. You may notice stiffness, swelling, redness, warmth to the touch, and even the inability to move your joint through a full range of motion. Catching it early can lead to easier treatment and can often help slow down the progression of damage.
Your Doctor Visit
The two most common types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), often start slowly and may have already caused joint damage by the time a person notices symptoms. This is why it is critical to see a doctor at the first indication that you might be having a problem.
To assess the cause of your joint pain or inflammation, your doctor will need to hear a description of your symptoms and perform a physical exam to check for range of motion or swelling. You can also expect your doctor to ask about your family history with the disease, as the likelihood of developing certain types of arthritis can be inherited.
After the physical exam, doctors will usually order other tests to assist in diagnosing your condition. These can include blood tests to look for rheumatoid factors, x-rays to look for loss of cartilage or bone spurs, or joint aspiration (using a needle to draw a sample of fluid from the joint for testing). Depending on your symptoms, doctors may also order MRIs or urine testing.
Depending on the type of arthritis you have, treatments will vary. Rheumatoid arthritis pain can often be helped by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but those do nothing to actually slow down the progression of RA. To do that, doctors may prescribe DMARDs, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, that can calm inflammation and help prevent further joint damage.
For osteoarthritis, physical therapy, stretching and regular exercise are important components of treatment, as long as it doesn’t cause further stress on the joints. Pain relievers, like acetaminophen, NSAIDs or topical creams and ointments, are also commonly recommended to treat the discomfort associated with this disease. Steroid injections into the affected joints can quickly reduce pain and inflammation, but the relief is only temporary. For more advanced cases, doctors can perform arthroscopic surgery or joint replacement surgery.
A Final Word
Cases that go on too long without diagnosis usually have worse outcomes. At that point, too much permanent damage has been done, which limits treatment options. Although arthritis can come on slowly, in some instances it can also progress quickly. So, the bottom line is—don’t put off a doctor visit if you are experiencing any possible arthritis symptoms!