Arthritis is a condition that develops due to cartilage wearing down or joint inflammation over the years. Some early signs include pain and swelling in your joints.

Arthritis begins

An estimated 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 18 has arthritis in at least one joint, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis develops when the shock-absorbing cartilage that normally cushions your bone is not able to function normally. This can be due to a wearing down of the cartilage over the years or inflammation in the joint.

With its natural cushion impaired, the joint can swell or become hard to move. Depending on which joints arthritis affects, the disease can make it difficult to walk, open jars, or do other everyday tasks.

There are more than 100 unique conditions classified as arthritis, each with different symptoms. In general, the first sign of arthritis is pain, also called arthralgia. This can feel like a dull ache or a burning sensation. Often, pain starts after you’ve used the joint a lot, for example, if you’ve been gardening or if you just walked up a flight of stairs.

Some people feel soreness first thing in the morning. Others report an achy feeling whenever it rains or the humidity changes.

As your joints become painful, they may also swell up. Swelling occurs due to increased synovial fluid in the joint. Synovial fluid is natural and acts as a cushion and lubricant in a typical joint. In arthritis, you may have too much synovial fluid as a result of joint inflammation. The swelling can be painful and restrict your movement.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that usually affects larger, weight-bearing joints, such as:

  • hips
  • knees
  • lower back

It can also affect the joints of the:

  • neck
  • fingers
  • toes

At first, only one joint may be affected. Arthritic joints from osteoarthritis feel sore and stiff, especially if you haven’t used them for a while. Often you’ll wake up sore in the morning, and it may take a few minutes for your joints to get moving again.

Rheumatoid arthritis also causes pain and swelling in the joints. Usually, the small joints of the fingers and toes are affected first. The most common symptom is stiffness, and it takes a long time to get the joints moving, especially in the morning.

The disease is symmetrical, meaning that if your left index finger is swollen and painful, you’ll usually have the same symptoms in the right index finger.

Rheumatoid arthritis can be systemic, meaning it can also affect the whole body.

Other non-joint symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • chest pain
  • eye inflammation or dryness

Like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune condition. That means instead of protecting your body from disease, the immune system turns against your body and attacks itself.

In addition to painful, swollen joints, the condition can cause rashes, eye redness and pain, and changes to the nails. Some people can get swelling of the whole finger or toe, which doctors refer to as “sausage-like.” This may help distinguish this condition from other types of arthritis.

Gout is a unique form of arthritis because it often attacks the large joint of the big toe. But it can also affect other joints, such as the ankle or knee. Gout flares are typically very intense pain in one joint, with redness and swelling.

People can get gout flares in the same joint over and over, or in different joints. There are medicines you can take to relieve gout flares and prevent flares from happening in the future.

Arthritis symptoms can come on so slowly that you may not even realize you have the condition. You may simply feel a little more sore or tired than usual. Once you start feeling pain and swelling in your joints, it’s important to see a doctor.

Arthritis is a progressive disease, meaning it worsens over time. Getting treatment as soon as possible can prevent your joints from becoming permanently damaged.

The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you need help finding a primary care doctor or a rheumatologist.