Do you have arthritis, or do you have arthralgia? Many medical organizations use either term to mean any type of joint pain. Mayo Clinic, for example, states that “joint pain refers to arthritis or arthralgia, which is inflammation and pain from within the joint itself.”
However, other organizations make a distinction between the two conditions. Read on to learn more about their characteristics.
Some health organizations distinguish between the terms arthritis and arthralgia.
For example, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) defines arthralgia as "aching or pain in the joints (without swelling).” Arthritis is “inflammation (pain with swelling) of the joints.” The CCFA notes that you may experience arthralgia in different joints in the body, including the hands, knees, and ankles. It also explains that arthritis can cause joint swelling and stiffness as well as joint pain like arthralgia.
Similarly, Johns Hopkins Medicine defines arthritis as an “inflammation of a joint” that causes "pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or bones.” Arthralgia is defined as “joint stiffness.” However, its symptoms also include pain and swelling — just as with arthritis.
Organizations who define arthritis and arthralgia as separate conditions distinguish between whether your symptoms involve pain or inflammation. The CCFA notes that you may not always be diagnosed with arthritis when you have arthralgia. But the opposite doesn’t hold true — if you have arthritis, you can also have arthralgia.
Symptoms of these two conditions can overlap. For example, both conditions can present symptoms such as:
- joint pain
- reduced ability to move your joints
These are usually the only symptoms of arthralgia. Arthritis, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by joint swelling and can be caused by underlying conditions such as lupus, psoriasis, gout, or certain infections. Additional symptoms of arthritis can include:
- joint deformation
- loss of bone and cartilage, leading to complete joint immobility
- intense pain from bones scraping against each other
Causes and risk factors
The joint pain caused by arthritis can be a result of:
- complications from a joint injury
- obesity, as the excess weight of your body puts pressure on your joints
- osteoarthritis, which causes your bones to scrape each other when the cartilage in your joints wears away completely
- rheumatoid arthritis, in which your immune system wears away the membrane around your joints, leading to inflammation and swelling
Arthralgia has a much wider variety of causes that aren’t necessarily linked to arthritis, including:
When to seek medical attention
Over 20 percent of adults in the United States have diagnosed arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s not always easy to tell whether you have arthritis, arthralgia, or another health condition.
Arthralgia can be linked to many conditions. You may think you have arthritis when your arthralgia is actually a symptom of an underlying condition. Joint conditions share many similar symptoms, so talk to your doctor about a diagnosis if you experience joint pain, stiffness, or swelling.
You should seek immediate medical care if an injury causes joint pain, especially if it’s intense and comes with sudden joint swelling. You should also seek medical attention if you can’t move your joint.
Diagnosing arthritis or arthralgia
Not all joint pain requires emergency care. If you have mild to moderate joint pain, you should make regular appointments with your doctor. If your joint pain involves redness, swelling, or tenderness, you can address these symptoms in a routine visit with your doctor. However, if your immune system is suppressed or if you have diabetes, you should be evaluated promptly.
Testing for diagnosing arthralgia or specific types of arthritis can include:
- blood tests, which can check erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR/sed rate) or C-reactive protein levels
- anticyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibody tests
- rheumatoid factor (RF latex) tests
- removal of joint fluid for testing, bacterial culture, crystal analysis
- biopsies of affected joint tissue
Arthritis can have serious complications if it’s left untreated or if an underlying condition isn’t properly treated. Some of these conditions include:
- lupus, an autoimmune condition that can cause kidney failure, heart attacks, and painful breathing
- psoriasis, a skin condition that can be associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney disease
- gout, a type of arthritis that can cause kidney stones, nodules (tophi), loss of joint mobility, and intense, recurring joint pain
Complications of arthralgia are generally not serious unless the arthralgia’s caused by an underlying inflammatory condition.
Tips and remedies
- Exercise every day for at least a half hour. Swimming and other water-based activities can help decrease the pressure on your joints.
- Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation.
- Use hot or cold compresses to relieve joint pain and stiffness.
- Join a support group, in-person or online, for people with arthritis or arthralgia.
- Rest often to avoid symptoms of fatigue and weakness in your muscles.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (which is also anti-inflammatory) or acetaminophen.
In more serious cases or arthritis or arthralgia, your doctor may recommend medication or surgery, especially if it’s caused by an underlying condition. Some treatments for serious arthritis include:
- disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for rheumatoid arthritis
- biologic drugs for psoriatic arthritis, such as adalimunab (Humira) or certolizumab (Cimzia)
- joint replacement or reconstruction surgery
Talk to your doctor about which treatment will work best for your type of arthritis. Drugs can have side effects, and surgeries may require lifestyle changes. It’s important to know and prepare for these changes before deciding on a treatment.