Is there more to your joint pains than you initially thought?

Have you noticed it takes longer getting out of bed than it used to? Is your body so stiff that it demands you stretch before starting your normal routine? If this sounds familiar, chances are you're suffering from some form of arthritis.

Arthritis is a non-specific term used to refer to joint pain, and it encompasses more than 100 different forms. The two most common are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (via Healthline).

Osteoarthritis, commonly referred to as "wear and tear" arthritis, is the most common cause of chronic joint pain, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects over 30 million adults in the United States alone. Normally, cartilage, which is firm and flexible connective tissue, lines the ends of each bone in the body. Cartilage provides a cushion between bones and enables smooth gliding motions of the joints. In OA, however, the cartilage breaks down and causes joint pain and swelling. In end-stage disease, the cartilage is completely worn away and the two opposing bones rub against each other, leading to debilitating joint damage and pain (via American College of Rheumatology).

Common signs and symptoms of OA include asymmetric joint involvement, joint pain which increases with activity, and tenderness over the joint. OA most commonly affects the hands, spine, hips, and knees. Diagnosis can be made through a detailed history and physical and x-ray imaging. There is currently no curative treatment; however, symptomatic management such as weight loss, physical therapy, and NSAIDs aim to decrease pain and increase an individual's quality of life. More advanced disease may require cortisone or gel injection or joint replacement surgery.

What about rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic systemic autoimmune inflammatory disease and can affect people of any age. Typically, the onset of joint pain and swelling occurs gradually and can be associated with non-specific symptoms such as fevers, weight loss, and fatigue. In RA, the synovium, the protective membrane that lines and provides nutritional support to the joint surfaces, is attacked by an accumulation of inflammatory cells. Inflammation in the joint spaces causes the synovium to thicken, thus destroying cartilage and bone within the joint (via Arthritis Foundation). Basically, your body is mistakenly attacking itself.

Signs and symptoms of RA include morning stiffness lasting more than 30 minutes and symmetrical joint pain and joint swelling. Diagnosis can be made through a detailed history and physical examination, along with specific laboratory testing, and x-ray or ultrasound imaging (via American College of Rheumatology). If left untreated, RA can cause debilitating joint deformities. Thankfully, there are a variety of effective therapies that help slow the progression of the disease.

If you are living with arthritis and are looking to seek a medical evaluation, look no further than a rheumatologist. Rheumatologists are board-certified physicians who specialize in the treatment of musculoskeletal disease and autoimmune conditions — and if you don't know where to start, your primary health care provider can point you in the right direction and give you a referral if you need one. So don't hesitate, the sooner you get treated, the sooner you can get back to enjoying your life.