More early warning signs of arthritis
Warning sign #4: Fatigue, flu-like symptoms
Look for: Chronic tiredness, loss of appetite, weight loss, anemia, and/or fever that persists for weeks (longer than a bout of flu). Some combination of these symptoms usually appears, along with stiffness and pain. You might even notice changes in nonjoint tissue, such as eyes that feel dry and sore and may be red. These symptoms can come on gradually or suddenly.
Why pay attention: Having these mild, flu-like, across-the-body symptoms, along with stiffness and pain, points to rheumatoid arthritis. RA is a disorder of systemic inflammation, meaning the entire body is affected (as opposed to the problem being isolated in a particular joint). "You shouldn't just take two Tylenol and sleep the discomfort off," Putterman says. These symptoms warrant a physical exam soon.
Warning sign #5: Odd-looking bumps on fingers
Look for: Bony spurs (small enlargements) on the joint of fingers. One may appear on the last joint, where it's known as a Heberden's node, or on the middle joint, where it's called a Bouchard's node. Sometimes the knobby bump appears at the base of the thumb (though this bump wasn't named after the doctor who studied it).
The joint is probably also stiff to move, although not necessarily painful. To the touch, the bump feels more like a bone than like a sponge. Some toes can also be affected.
Why pay attention: Doctors use this visual information to help diagnose arthritis, along with the rest of a physical exam, a history, and, sometimes, X-rays and lab tests. Heberden's nodes and Bouchard's nodes, seen in osteoarthritis, tend to run in families, especially through women, White says. Farmers and others who engage in a lot of manual labor are especially prone to OA of the lower extremities.
Warning sign #6: Pain that interferes with sleep or pleasure
Look for: Being unable to fall asleep because you're so focused on joint pain, or being awakened in the middle of the night by joint pain. Some sufferers begin to avoid family and other activities they enjoy because they feel ground down by chronic pain; the very prospect of visiting grandchildren or going to a social outing feels overwhelming.
Why pay attention: Osteoarthritis pain is caused by eroding cartilage, which eventually causes bone to rub against bone -- and yes, it can really hurt. Everyone has a different threshold for pain. But pain that interferes with your ability to enjoy the most basic, restful activities of life like sleep or enjoying your family? That's a different animal. "It shows that what you've been doing before is not adequate and that the pain should be taken care of," Putterman says.
What's more, when chronic pain saps your joie de vivre, depression can evolve.
Warning sign #7: Achy, hard-to-use hands
Look for: Trouble managing fine-motor skills: buttoning a shirt, tying shoelaces, using a fork and knife, turning a key in a lock, grasping a doorknob, snapping fingers.
Affected joints can be redder than surrounding skin, warm to the touch, and tender.
Why pay attention: "Trouble with these activities of daily living all suggest something worrisome is going on," Putterman says. Many different joints in the hands and wrists tend to be involved with rheumatoid arthritis, making these hand and finger tasks so frustrating. Rheumatoid arthritis is also a symmetrical disease, meaning both sides of the body (and hands as well as feet) tend to be affected simultaneously. (In osteoarthritis, the joints affected usually aren't symmetrical.)
Notice which part of the hand is affected. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to afflict the knuckles and the next joint up, White says. In osteoarthritis, the top joints and the base of the thumb are more affected, and not necessarily all of the digits at once.