In most cases, arthritis is diagnosed after an individual contacts his or her health care professional because pain is significant and has begun to interfere with daily life. If you have that kind of pain, your physician will ask you to describe the feeling because the severity and quality of the pain is helpful in figuring out the cause. Is it a throbbing, achy, burning or stabbing sensation? Is it constant or occasionally intense? Do certain activities make the pain worse? Is it worse in the morning or at night? In some cases, your doctor may ask you to record your daily experiences in a pain diary.
Your health care professional will review your current symptoms as well as your past medical history, family history and medication use. A thorough medical examination will follow. The doctor may order blood and urine tests, and, in select cases, X-rays and possibly imaging procedures such as a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be recommended.
Once arthritis has been detected, a treatment plan can be developed to suit you and your lifestyle. With early diagnosis, most arthritic conditions can be managed sufficiently to minimize both the pain and the disruption to your daily life. In many instances, early diagnosis and treatment can also work to curtail the actual damage that the condition can cause.
The pain associated with arthritis stems from a number of sources. When, for example, the tissue that lines the joints (synovial membrane), tendons or ligaments swells, you may feel aches and discomfort right at the joint. Muscle strain and fatigue frequently follows as well, adding to the intensity and duration of pain. If there is joint damage over time, even the most ordinary activities — getting out of bed in the morning, taking a bath, holding a pencil — can cause pain.
At the same time, the level of pain and discomfort that people find tolerable varies from person to person, from situation to situation. Each person’s threshold for pain is different. In addition, it is not uncommon for an individual who lives with chronic pain, or the possibility of intense, intermittent pain, to experience anxiety and reactive depression as a result. Emotional stress and distress can intensify the sensation of pain.
Recognizing the typical types of pain, the location and the accompanying features helps clarify whether arthritis is present. Once the diagnosis is established, the type of arthritis may help direct treatment and provide an idea of what to expect. It should be noted, however, that the specific type of arthritis cannot always be diagnosed early in the course of illness. In addition, many types of arthritis are treated similarly, so a specific diagnosis is not always as helpful as it might seem.
In many types of arthritis, the course of the disease is unpredictable. Most chronic diseases involve, by their very nature, periods when the symptoms are active and troublesome (flares) and periods when symptoms are negligible (remissions). This unpredictable and variable course can complicate both diagnosis and treatment.
Symptoms And Signs Of Arthritis
Arthritis symptoms and signs vary according to type and severity of condition. A symptom is an abnormal experience, such as pain or stiffness, that a person may describe to someone else (including their doctor). Joint pain (a symptom) is often not caused by arthritis, but instead may be related to tendinitis, bursitis or degenerative joint disease (without actual arthritis, or joint inflammation). A sign is an abnormality a person may observe or detect in another; an example is the finding of joint swelling a doctor may see when examining a joint.
- Pain; sensation of swelling and stiffness in or near a joint, especially in the morning
- Limited joint function and increased pain with movement
- Fatigue, a feeling of weakness, a loss of appetite (only in some “systemic” forms of arthritis)
- Joint swelling
- Joint redness
- Joint warmth
- Joint deformity
- Loss of joint motion
Headaches related to neck problems (also called cervical headaches) often are caused by arthritis in the neck and spine. Pain is usually located in the back of the head. In the case of a pinched nerve from arthritic bone or disk degeneration, pain may be accompanied by weakness in the arms and/or tingling or numbness in the neck, scalp or arms.
The pain of arthritis results from inflammation and subsequent damage of the joints and connective tissues. There are several different forms of arthritis, but the connection to headache is related more to the location of arthritis than the type. If the cervical vertebrae are involved, headache is more likely to occur. Rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative joint disease are the most common arthritic causes of cervical headache.
Cervical headaches are usually treated first with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen, among others. Sometimes, additional pain relievers are helpful, including acetaminophen (Tylenol and others). Heat, massage and exercise — under your doctor’s supervision — are also helpful for some people. A neck collar may reduce symptoms, but should be worn only intermittently to avoid neck stiffness and weakness. If there has been damage to the neck so that nerves or the spinal cord are compressed, surgery may be necessary. Additional treatments for the underlying arthritis — for example, methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis — may reduce joint pain and inflammation, which may lessen the pain of a cervical headache.
Arthritis is the focus of considerable research effort, but currently there is no known way to reliably prevent neck arthritis and the headaches it causes. Treatment today typically involves relieving symptomatic pain and reducing the burden of this illness. It is encouraging that medical research is discovering ways to slow down the destructive process in rheumatoid arthritis, one of the more severe forms.