How do you know if it’s arthritis?

May 30, 2023 Swedish Health Team


In this article:

  • Arthritis is a collection of conditions that cause joint pain, all of which fall into two categories: inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis.

  • If you are experiencing continual or recurring pain that’s interfering with your day-to-day life, you may have arthritis.

  • Patients with arthritis have a variety of treatment options, from diet and lifestyle changes to medication and, if necessary, surgery.

Arthritis isn’t just one single disease — rather, it’s a term that refers to joint inflammation and pain. And that pain and inflammation can be caused by a number of conditions that impact people of all ages.

When you hear people talk about arthritis, they’re usually referring to the two primary types of arthritis — inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis. To better understand each of them and learn the best ways to connect to arthritis care, we spoke with James R. Babington, M.D., FAAPMR, a physiatrist and the Program Medical Director of Spine Services at the Swedish Edmonds Specialty Clinic.

Inflammatory arthritis is an autoimmune condition

Patients with inflammatory arthritis have an overactive immune system that attacks healthy joint tissue in the spine, hands and feet. For some people, this inflammation becomes systemic, damaging the eyes, skin, heart and other organs.

With inflammatory arthritis, the immune system attacks the body it’s supposed to protect — this is why inflammatory arthritis is considered an autoimmune disease. Inflammatory arthritis can be chronic or it can come in spurts, called flares. During a flare, your arthritis is considered “active” — when the flare subsides, your arthritis is “inactive.”

“Generally, inflammatory forms of arthritis are more common in women,” says Dr. Babington. “They also tend to affect patients at a young age, ranging from their 20s to 40s.”

“We usually diagnose inflammatory arthritis with blood work and sometimes X-rays,” he says.

The most common type of inflammatory arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis and the doctors who treat it are specialists call rheumatologists. They focus on very specific immune system treatments that reduce joint damage. 

Osteoarthritis may impact us as we age

“Osteoarthritis is the common ‘wear-and-tear’ type of arthritis that most people do not experience until their 60s or 70s,” says Dr. Babington. 

Osteoarthritis is a breakdown of your cartilage — the shiny, white tissue at the ends of your bones where they meet your joints. It can occur after injuries, and it can also happen from normal wear and tear on your body. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in your body.

“Patients with osteoarthritis work with physiatrists like me,” he says. “And, when needed, we collaborate with skilled orthopedic and spine surgeons who can help arthritis patients manage specific anatomic concerns.”

You can feel the signs of arthritis

Arthritis pain is different for everyone. Yours may be mild or severe, it might come and go or be constant. Knowing the signs of arthritis can help you recognize it early and get the treatment you need to alleviate your pain.

  • Let your provider know if you are experiencing:
  • Difficulty exercising or with normal movements
  • Loss of range of motion in your joints
  • Swelling and stiffness, particularly in the morning
  • Warmth in your joints
  • Tenderness to the touch

“We worry a lot about joints that are swollen or hot, especially when a patient is also exhibiting a fever,” says Dr. Babington. “That could be a sign of arthritis or infection.”

“Patients who experience progressive weakness or a pale, cold limb should seek care immediately, as well as anyone experiencing an inability to bear weight or use a limb.”

Arthritis treatment is tailored to your unique needs

While there is no cure for arthritis, there are treatments that may reduce pain, and improve function and quality of life.

“At Swedish, our programs focus on improving function and minimizing any disability that might result from arthritis,” says Dr. Babington. “Our goal is to use the most effective treatment to achieve a strong recovery with the least amount of risk, and we follow a collaborative, team-based approach to ensure patients have access to the most complete diagnostic and treatment regimens.”

“We offer one of the most comprehensive outpatient pain management programs in the country,” he says.

  • Non-surgical arthritis treatment at Swedish may include:
  • Exercise therapy
  • Medication, either over-the-counter or prescription
  • Physical therapy
  • Braces
  • Injection therapy, including cortisone joint injections, visco supplement injections (lubricating fluid injected into the joint) and platelet-rich plasma injections

If non-surgical treatments don’t work, surgery may be an option.

“We are fortunate to collaborate closely with our surgical colleagues to ensure that our patients have access to the latest minimally invasive arthritis procedures to get them back to the activities they love to do,” Dr. Babington says.

Your provider may encourage exercise for arthritis

“In our field, we often talk about exercise as medicine,” says Dr. Babington. “We know that moving our bodies leads to improvements in health including improved cardiovascular health, memory and mood. Exercise can also help improve arthritis.” 

The CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity (e.g., brisk walking) weekly, and two days a week of strength training. For people over 65, the CDC also recommends working on activities that improve balance. 

“People often think they need to go to a gym or do some other kind of formal exercise, but realistically it can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from your office,” says Dr. Babington. “Any movement can help lead to improved health and well-being.”   

He adds that prioritizing movement is particularly important as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While the pandemic changed peoples’ schedules in a way that encouraged some to move more, we also saw people at home working remotely and becoming more sedentary.”

Some patients have reported COVID-19-associated arthritis, and there is ongoing research into COVID-19 viral arthritis or COVID-19 reactive arthritis. But scientists have yet to find conclusive evidence that SARS-CoV-2 triggers arthritis.

If arthritis is interfering with your life, ask for help

“In my experience, patients typically start to ask for help when their arthritis keeps them from doing the things they enjoy,” says Dr. Babington. “Some patients will put up with a lot of pain until they are not able to do their daily activities or recreational activities,” he says. “And it takes a loved one to notice that they aren’t as active as usual, or that they are avoiding activities that they used to do regularly.”

“The most important thing you can do is pay attention to your body, and if you feel pain that is preventing you from living life the way you want, talk to your provider.”                                                                              


Learn more and find a provider

To learn more about the arthritis treatments at Swedish, contact Swedish Spine Specialists. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Get the facts on joint replacement

Understanding chronic pain

Stay safe while exercising in the summer heat: Tips from a Swedish sports doc

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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