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Arthritis - Arthritis: causes and symptoms

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Around nine million people in the UK have arthritis, which causes pain, swelling and stiffness in joints, muscles and bones. Treatments and self-help strategies are more effective the earlier they're started.

Arthritis can affect people of any age. There's no cure but treatments can manage the pain, swelling and stiffness, and enable those with arthritis to live active lives. More than 200 kinds of arthritis have been identified, including:

  • Osteoarthritis: the cartilage between bones wears away and the bones rub together painfully.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: the immune system attacks the joints and causes inflammation.
  • Fibromyalgia: muscles and ligaments all over the body can hurt.
  • Gout: sudden pain felt in a joint, usually the big toe.
  • Ankylosing spondilitis: inflammation affects the spine.

The causes of arthritis aren't known. It's thought there may be genetic (inherited) factors that make some people more likely to develop it.

Jo Cummings, helpline manager for Arthritis Care, says: "Often people with arthritis will say 'My grandmother had stiff, knobbly fingers', so there seems to be a family connection. But this doesn't mean that you'll get arthritis just because it's in your family."

The most common kinds of arthritis are osteoarthritis, which affects more than eight million people in the UK, and rheumatoid arthritis, which affects around 350,000. Both types usually develop after the age of 40, and rheumatoid arthritis affects three times more women than men. 


Arthritis symptoms usually start with pain and stiffness in a joint. This is often in the hips or fingers, but can be in any joint, including the knees, elbows, neck and toes. The discomfort can cause disrupted sleep.

Cummings says, "People initially notice aches and pains in their joints, or they might have swollen, hot joints.

"Because there are so many kinds of arthritis, the best thing is always to see your GP. Do this even if you're 102, because there might be a treatment that can control the pain, swelling and stiffness quite early."

Arthritis can get worse, making it difficult to do everyday activities that involve the affected joints, such as walking, turning handles or taps, or bending down. Some people with arthritis need a carer to help them.

Osteoarthritis can cause lumpy bone growths to develop, often on the knuckles of the hands.

In both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, stiffness and pain is worse in the morning but eases during the day as the joints loosen with use. Pain may increase again in the evening when affected joints become tired from use and bearing weight.

See your GP

Most kinds of arthritis are progressive, which means the condition worsens. Early diagnosis is key to fighting it.

"Early diagnosis can help you nip arthritis in the bud," says Cummings. "When you know what kind of arthritis you've got, you can find out about the right kind of strategies to take." 

If you notice pain, especially if it worsens after using the joint, go to your GP. They may diagnose you or refer you to a specialist rheumatology clinic. Your GP or specialist will examine the affected joints, take blood tests, and ask about your medical history and whether there's arthritis in your family. You may also have an X-ray, MRI scan or CT scan.

Exercise, rest and keeping warm can all help. For more about medication and other ways to ease pain and stiffness, see Treatments and Self-help pain relief

The Arthritis Care website offers answers to frequently asked questions about arthritis.  

Watch the video

A rheumatologist describes the effects of rheumatoid arthritis, its common symptoms, and the treatments available.

Medical Review: February 13, 2009

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