If you’re in or nearing middle age, there’s an excellent chance you’ve noticed that your body doesn’t move the same as it did when you were younger. You might feel stiff in the morning when you get out of bed. You might find aches and pains occur more easily and more often after routine chores. Or you might even feel like your grandfather, who always knew it would rain because his knee started to hurt!
Almost everyone experiences joint pain at one time or another, especially if they’ve had some type of fall or other injury. But not all pain is the same. If your pain comes and goes, or is confined to one specific joint, it could very well be just an occasional flare-up due to an old injury. But if you find that the pain is becoming a regular part of your life, or if you experience it in more parts of your body, it could be time for a medical evaluation to determine if you have arthritis.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is an umbrella term used to describe joint pain, but there are more than 100 different types of conditions that fall under this category. Two of the most commonly occurring – and likely to be the ones you’ve heard about the most – are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between bones wears away, and the bones begin to rub together, while rheumatoid arthritis is caused when the patient’s own immune system attacks the joints and causes inflammation that can affect the joints as well as other organs. Dr. Jeffrey Sonntag is an orthopedic surgeon with expertise in shoulders and elbows at the Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Center of Northern Indiana (OSMC). He notes, “arthritis is a medical term which means joint inflammation or pain. As an orthopedic surgeon we generally treat arthritis surgically when conservative treatments fail, and your arthritis is causing you to have more bad days than good days. When this occurs, it is time to start a discussion with your surgeon. Joint replacement is not a decision to make overnight. I recommend going over your personal goals with your surgeon so he or she can set the correct expectations. With any type of joint replacement expectations are key to a good outcome for both the patient and the surgeon.”
When It’s Normal Aches and Pains
If you’re experiencing a new injury or simply overdid the yardwork on the weekend, simple at home remedies including rest, over-the-counter medication, or heat and cold therapies such as ice packs or heating pads can help. If your pain persists, it’s best to seek medical attention and engage in some longer-term treatments. Depending on the nature of the injury, you might find relief through therapies such as:
- Physical therapy
- Corticosteroid shots
- A weight-loss plan
- Dietary supplements or changes to the foods you eat
When It’s More Than Aging
Because stiffness and pain are so commonly a part of aging, and because almost everyone has experienced some sort of injury that can continue to cause discomfort for years after the fact, it’s easy for people to simply dismiss their joint pain as a natural – and inevitable – part of getting older. There are some signs, though, that you should pay attention to and be sure to discuss with your doctor because they might be signs of a form of arthritis.
If you experience stiffness, especially if it lasts well into the morning, it can be a sign that you’re experiencing pain associated with an arthritic condition. Other signs can include:
- Experiencing a limited range of motion in a joint due to pain
- Hearing crunching sounds when you move, especially in joints like the knee, which can be a signal that bones are starting to rub together as cartilage has deteriorated
- Experiencing muscle weakness or joints locking up, causing you to lose your balance
If you experience any of these symptoms, an orthopedic specialist can evaluate you and order an imaging test, such as X-rays or an MRI to determine the nature and extent of any injuries or deterioration that is occurring.
If you are experiencing osteoarthritis, your treatment plan might initially include the common forms of pain relief described earlier, but it can also include mild exercise or, at more advanced stages, complete joint replacement.
Additional symptoms to be aware of can include:
- Pain that wakes you at night or stiffness that doesn’t wear off for several hours after getting up
- Swelling, redness, or warmth on a spot, which can suggest inflammation
- Pain that won’t go away, especially if accompanied by other new symptoms that seem to have coincidentally developed at the same time, such as fevers, sores, or rashes
If your joint pain includes any of these symptoms, it is especially critical to speak to a doctor and get a treatment plan. These symptoms can be signs of a form of arthritis that causes inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect other body parts such as internal organs or eyes.
The bottom line is, no matter how old you are, chronic pain is not necessarily an inevitable part of aging. Pain symptoms that occur regularly should always be discussed with your doctor because there are often many treatment options that can help reduce your pain and keep it from interfering with your life.