Arthritis Symptoms and risk factors

The term arthritis refers to more than a hundred different conditions characterized by pain in the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones or other elements. of the musculoskeletal system. (The special Arthritis section has specific factsheets on many of these conditions.)

In the past, the word rheumatism was used instead to designate all these ailments. This term is now considered obsolete.

Note . Some forms of arthritis are characterized by the presence of inflammation , but not all. Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to irritated or infected tissue. It causes swelling , pain and redness to the affected area of ​​the body.


The arthritis can appear as a result of injury, infection or simple wear and tear, but can also be the result of a disease autoimmune in which the body attacks its own tissues. Sometimes no reason can be found to explain the symptoms.

Forms of arthritis

The two main forms:

  • The osteoarthritis is the most common arthritis; it is said to be formed “with wear and tear”. It’s degenerative arthritis . The destruction by wear and tear of the cartilage that covers and protects the bones of the joint and the appearance of small bony growths characterize this disease. It mainly affects the joints that support a large part of the body weight, such as the hips, knees, feet and spine. Osteoarthritis is often related to age, or caused by excess weight or by the repeated use of a joint in the practice of a sport. It rarely appears before quarantine.
  • The rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease . The joints of the hands, wrists and feet are often the first to be affected. Other organs can be affected as the inflammation affects the whole body. This type of arthritis usually starts around 40 to 60 years old, but it can start in early adulthood. Rheumatoid arthritis is 2-3 times more common in women than in men. Although scientists have not yet discovered its cause, it appears to be of autoimmune origin and influenced by heredity .

Other forms of arthritis, among the most common:

  • Infectious arthritis. It can occur when an infection directly affects a joint and causes inflammation;
  • Reactive arthritis. This form of arthritis also appears as a result of infection. But in this case, the infection is not located directly in the joint;
  • Juvenile arthritis. A rare form of rheumatoid arthritis which occurs in children and adolescents, and which often gets better with age;
  • Psoriatic arthritis . A form of arthritis that is accompanied by skin lesions typical of psoriasis;
  • Gout and pseudogout: The deposit of crystals in the joints, in the form of uric acid in the case of gout or as calcium phosphate in the case of a pseudogout, causes inflammation and pain, often in the big toe in the first place.
In all inflammatory arthritis, connective tissue is affected by inflammation . Connective tissues serve as support and protection for organs. They are found in the skin, arteries, tendons, around organs or at the junction between two different tissues. For example, the synovial membrane, which lines the cavities of the joints, is connective tissue.
  • Lupus. It is considered a form of arthritis since it is one of the chronic autoimmune diseases. It is a connective tissue disease that can cause, in its most common and serious form, inflammation of the skin, muscles, joints, heart, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels and of the nervous system.
  • Scleroderma . A chronic autoimmune disease characterized by hardening of the skin and connective tissue damage. It can affect the joints and cause the typical symptoms of inflammatory-type arthritis. Systemic scleroderma can affect internal organs, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, and digestive system.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis. A chronic inflammation of the joints of the vertebrae of the back that develops gradually and causes stiffness and pain in the back, torso and hips.
  • Gougerot-Sjögren syndrome. A serious autoimmune disease that first affects the glands and mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth, causing these organs to dry up through decreased production of tears and saliva. In its primary form, it only affects these glands. In its secondary form, it can be associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Polymyositis . A rare disease that causes inflammation in the muscles, which then lose their strength.
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Other diseases are linked to different forms of arthritis and sometimes form in association with them, such as plantar fasciitis, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, Paget’s disease of bone, Raynaud’s disease and duct syndrome. 

Most arthritic diseases are chronic . Some will lead to the deterioration of joint structures. This is because stiffness decreases the mobility of the joint and the muscles around it atrophy, which accelerates the progression of the disease. Over time, the cartilage crumbles, the bone wears down, and the joint can become deformed.

Symptoms and risk factors for arthritis


The different forms of arthritis have their own symptoms and their own course, which vary widely among individuals. For example, osteoarthritis most often manifests as pain and stiffness in a single joint. As for rheumatoid arthritis, it is often accompanied by swelling and redness in several joints.

Note, however, that joint and musculoskeletal pain is common to all types of arthritis.

Risk factors

Risk factors vary depending on the type of arthritis. Consult each of our sheets in the special Arthritis section.

Prevention of arthritis

There are several ways to reduce the risk of degenerative arthritis, such as osteoarthritis . The most effective way is certainly to maintain a healthy weight . To find out about other means, see our Osteoarthritis file. However, when it comes to inflammatory arthritis , very little is known about prevention.

Many people with arthritis, regardless of the type of arthritis, manage to reduce their pain by modifying their lifestyle and by having recourse to various health practitioners (physiotherapists or kinesiologists, occupational therapists, massage therapists, etc.).

Arthritis painArthritis pain is experienced differently from person to person. Its intensity is largely based on the severity and extent of the disease. Sometimes the pain temporarily subsides. Daily activities often need to be rearranged accordingly.We do not yet understand all the biological mechanisms involved in the genesis of arthritis pain. All the same, it seems that the depletion of the tissues of oxygen plays a leading role. This lack of oxygen is itself caused by inflammation in the joints and tension in the muscles. That’s why anything that helps relax muscles or promotes blood flow to the joints relieves pain. In addition, fatigue, anxiety, stress and depression increase the perception of pain.

Here are various ways to reduce pain and stiffness, at least temporarily.

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 Rest, relaxation and sleep

The first weapon against arthritis pain would be rest , especially for people in whom stress, anxiety and nervous fatigue are very present. Of breathing exercises , mental techniques of relaxation and meditation are ways to help the body achieve relaxation. (For more information on this subject, see our article Stress and Anxiety). It is recommended that you get at least 8-10 hours of sleep to minimize pain.

Exercise: essential

People with arthritis need to exercise in order to maintain joint mobility and maintain muscle mass. Exercise also has an analgesic effect since it causes the release of endorphins in the body. However, it is important to aim for a balance between periods of rest and activity, by “listening” to your body. Fatigue and pain are good indicators. When they do occur, it is better to take the time to relax. On the other hand, too much rest can cause stiffness in the joints and muscles. The objective to be achieved is therefore a certain balance between periods of activity and relaxation, which will be specific to each person.

Several exercises are possible, we must choose those that suit us, going gradually. It is better to use the services of a physiotherapist (kinesiologist) or an occupational therapist in situations where certain tasks are difficult to accomplish. The movements should be regular, flexible and slow. Performed in hot water , the exercises put less stress on the joints. See also the Tastes and Needs Game in the Physical Fitness sheet.

It is suggested to combine different types of exercises to get the benefits of each.

  • Stretching helps maintain motor skills and flexibility in muscles and tendons, while reducing stiffness in the joints. They should be practiced gently and maintained for 20 to 30 seconds;
  • Amplitude exercises aim to maintain the normal capacity of the joint by making it make full amplitude movements. They prepare the joint for endurance and weight training exercises;
  • Endurance exercise (such as swimming and cycling) improves cardiovascular condition and overall physical fitness, increases well-being and helps in weight control;
  • Strength exercises are used to maintain or develop the musculature, necessary to support the affected joints.

The Arthritis Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of people with arthritis, offers various body awareness exercises (such as tai chi and yoga) to improve balance, posture and breathing.

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Beware of excess! If the pain persists for more than 1 hour after exercising, it is better to talk to your physiotherapist and reduce the intensity of the efforts. Also, unusual fatigue, swelling in the joints, or loss of flexibility are signs that the exercises are not suitable and should be changed.

Heat therapy Applying heat or cold to painful joints can provide short-term relief, regardless of the form of arthritis.- Hot. Applying heat should be done when the muscles are sore and tense. The heat provides a relaxing effect, but above all a better circulation of the blood in the joints (which relieves the pain). You can take a shower or a bath of about fifteen minutes in hot water or apply heating bags or a hot water bottle to the sore areas.- Cold. Cold can be helpful in times of acute inflammation, when a joint is swollen and painful. An ice pack surrounded by a thin, wet towel applied topically for 15 to 20 minutes has a numbing effect and relieves pain. However, it is suggested not to apply cold to an already numb joint.Contraindication. Heat therapy is contraindicated in the presence of blood circulation disorders, including those caused by diabetes with circulatory complications and Raynaud’s disease.

 Massage therapy

Massages relax the muscles and relax the entire body, relieving pain and cramps. It is important to talk to the massage therapist about your condition so that he can adapt his practice accordingly. You can also combine massage with thermotherapy, for example by taking a hot water bath in a jetted tub. Gentle Swedish massage, Californian massage, Esalen massage, and the Trager approach are less vigorous and therefore more suitable for people with arthritis 1 . Consult our Massotherapy sheet for an overview of the various massage techniques.

Healthy weight

People who are overweight and suffer from arthritis would benefit from losing the extra pounds. Even modest weight loss is beneficial in relieving pain. This measure becomes particularly important in cases of osteoarthritis, since being overweight is a major risk factor, but also for other forms of arthritis. 

 The support network

Joining a social support network can help cope with the pain and physical strain of arthritis. Exchange concerns about the disease, break isolation, learn about new treatments and avenues explored by medical research, sharing effective “recipes” for living better with arthritis or even getting involved in a support organization are all possibilities within everyone’s reach. In addition to support groups, the Arthritis Society offers a “personal initiative program against arthritis”: 6 training sessions of 2 hours offered by qualified volunteers to learn how to better manage pain, prevent fatigue, etc. The Arthritis Society also offers another program, a unique 2 hour workshop on chronic pain management.
See the Sites of Interest section.

Medical treatments and complementary approaches to arthritis

Medical treatment

There is no definitive cure for overcoming the  arthritis. In general, the drugs help reduce symptoms unique to inflammation, such as pain and swelling, or work directly at the source of inflammatory processes to slow the progression of the disease.

If the drugs no longer work and the loss of function of a joint is severe, the doctor may suggest joint reconstruction or replacement surgery .

Complementary approaches

No alternative or traditional approach could claim to treat arthritis completely, so beware of promises of “miraculous cure”. Complementary approaches can help relieve symptoms, however . This is the case, for example, with glucosamine to reduce pain associated with osteoarthritis.

Our doctor’s opinion on arthritis

Unfortunately, many people with arthritis experience learning to cope with pain on a daily basis. Often the pain is chronic, although in some cases remission may provide respite. I can only recommend that you apply as much as possible the advice formulated in the Prevention section (rest, relaxation, sleep, exercise while respecting a certain balance and listening to your body, thermotherapy). In addition to the medications prescribed by your doctor, I strongly recommend that you use a multidisciplinary approach including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychotherapy as needed. Complementary approaches such as acupuncture and massage therapy can also help. At last,


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