When you wake up in the morning do your joints feel stiff and sore? You might chalk it up to aging and brush off the stiffness, especially if the joint aches and pain go away after you start moving around. But don’t be too quick to disregard these symptoms. Those early morning aches and stiffness are a classic symptom of arthritis that you shouldn’t ignore. As you’ll see, there are some compelling reasons to get those symptoms checked out by a health professional.
Joint Destruction and Arthritis
Arthritis is a disease of the joints, the space that separates two bones. Covering the ends of long bones is a layer of cartilage that helps protect the surface of the bone and reduce friction. With arthritis, the cartilage wears away, either due to degeneration or inflammation. Over time, it can reach the point that the end of one bone rubs against another. Ouch! Along with changes to the cartilage, joint function suffers, and movements become stiff and painful. Why should you be aware of these symptoms and act quickly? There’s evidence that if you treat arthritis in its early stages you can slow or even prevent progression of the joint damage.
Arthritis comes in many varieties. The most common is osteoarthritis, a degenerative type of joint disease that becomes more common with age. However, as you’ll see, osteoarthritis can also have an inflammatory component. Another common form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, a form associated with joint inflammation. In fact, there are more than 100 forms of arthritis, some of which you’re familiar with, such as gout and arthritis due to lupus. Each affects the joints differently, but all can cause loss of joint function.
Don’t Ignore Those Joint Aches!
The earlier you treat any type of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, the less likely you are to develop permanent joint damage. This is particularly true for inflammatory types of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis that can impact other organs of the body, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Rheumatoid arthritis is really a “whole body” disease rather than an isolated joint condition and it does “collateral damage” to other organs.
The scenario of feeling stiff and experiencing joint aches in the morning is a classic early sign of rheumatoid arthritis. Often, rheumatoid joint stiffness & joint pain goes away after a hot shower or walking around for a while but it typically hangs around for an hour or more before gradually subsiding. As the disease progresses, you may become stiff and experience joint aches even when sitting.
Rheumatoid versus Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis can cause stiffness in the morning too but, unlike rheumatoid arthritis where the stiffness lasts for an hour or more, osteoarthritis pain and stiffness typically subside within 30 minutes. Pain that persists beyond 30 minutes suggests that there’s inflammation in the joints. If you have osteoarthritis, you might have some joint inflammation, but it’s more common with rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of inflammatory arthritis. People with osteoarthritis also tend to experience joint discomfort later in the day, as the aches worsen with activity.
Another clue that you might have inflammatory arthritis, like rheumatoid, rather than osteoarthritis, is the joint aches affect both sides of the body. Osteoarthritis often affects a joint on one side of the body but not the other. For example, you might have an achy left knee, but your right knee feels fine. In contrast, rheumatoid usually impacts joints on both sides of the body. If both knees or both shoulders hurt, it suggests inflammation. Another sign that you have inflammation is if a joint or joints are swollen. Swollen joints, especially if the overlying skin is red, needs immediate evaluation.
Why Knowing The Type of Arthritis You Have Matters
Since rheumatoid arthritis can harm other organs, it’s important to know which type you have. Plus, as mentioned, early treatment of both types is important for preventing further joint destruction and keeping the joints as healthy as possible. If you have rheumatoid arthritis or another inflammatory type of arthritis, like lupus, your doctor will monitor closely for signs that other organs, such as the heart or lungs, are involved. Inflammation that affects the joints can also harm other organs.
Another Reason Not to Ignore Joint Aches
Preventing further joint destruction is only one reason to see your doctor early if you have joint pain. Even if it’s only osteoarthritis, painful joints can alter your movements in a way that places stress on muscles, tendons, and other joints. If you strength train, altered biomechanics due to joint dysfunction can change your form in a way that increases the risk of injury. Plus, you may need to alter some of the exercises you do to avoid aggravating joint pain and eliminate or limit the amount of high-impact exercise, depending on how severe it is.
How Do You Know What Kind of Arthritis You Have?
How long the joint aches and stiffness last in the morning is one clue as to whether you have active joint inflammation. Discomfort lasting for more than 30 minutes suggests some form of inflammatory arthritis or osteoarthritis with an inflammatory component. Blood tests that measure inflammatory markers can also help distinguish inflammatory forms of arthritis from the more common osteoarthritis.
X-rays of achy joints, like the knees, will sometimes show signs of arthritis, including narrowing of the joint space, bone spurs, and cysts. However, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals how healthy the tendons and cartilage are. Some doctors use it to monitor the progression of arthritis.
When You Should See Your Physician
How do you know if that vague stiffness and achiness you’re experiencing needs evaluation? If morning stiffness and achiness persist for longer than 3 weeks, make an appointment. Depending on the type of arthritis, treatment can range from conservative therapies, like dietary changes, low-impact exercise, and physical therapy, to medications. Weight loss is an effective treatment too. Carrying excess weight magnifies the force placed on your hips and knees every time you take a step. The earlier you find out, the earlier you can change your lifestyle or, potentially, get medical therapy to slow down the progression.
· Arthritis Research & Therapy. Volume 14, Article number: 212 (2012)
· Am Fam Physician. 2012 Jan 1;85(1):49-56.