One of the hallmarks of arthritis is, of course, pain. If you don’t know anything about arthritis, you probably know that pain is involved. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the pain can differ from one type of arthritis to another. And it can be different from one patient to another, even if you have the same type! So today we’re going to answer the question, “What does arthritis pain feel like?”
There are over 100 types of arthritis, and I’m not going to address all of them. I am going to share my experience with rheumatoid arthritis, and others are sharing their experience with some other types. Thank you to those who helped me with this post!
Friendly reminder that I am not a medical professional. I am speaking from my own experience, and when I share the experience of others and advice from actual medical professionals, I include citations.
What Does Arthritis Pain Feel Like?
What My Arthritis Pain Feels Like
Morning stiffness and pain – One key sign of inflammatory arthritis is morning stiffness. This means pretty much what it sounds like: I’m extra stiff in the morning. For me personally, this also means some morning pain. It’s different than pain later in the day, as it’s more like pain from my joints taking a while to warm up in the morning. When I’m doing well, my morning stiffness and pain last about 30 minutes. When I’m not, it can take at least 2 hours to wear off.
Because of this, I like to wake up way earlier than I might otherwise. If I start work at 8, for example, I want to wake up between 6 and 7. This gives me time to mentally and physically fully wake up. My morning pain is around the joints that are particularly stiff. For example, my good knee feels not-terrible most of the time, but it is difficult first thing in the morning. It is stiff and I have more pain in the morning in that knee than I do during the rest of the day.
Daily normal pain – My traditional daily pain is like an ache focused around the particular joints that are affected and bother me. When it is really bad, that “ache” radiates out from the joint. I put ache in quotation marks because while it is the best description for it, I personally feel like it downplays the pain.
Let me be clear: that aching can hurt incredibly badly.
But it is not sharp or shooting or stabbing. It is definitely an ache. It is an ache that at best is a constant background noise and at worst means I am unable to do anything other than watch tv.
That being said, let’s go back to what my daily pain is like.
This daily pain can be rather creaky. In fact, that’s such a staple of arthritis pain and descriptions of it that there is online community for arthritis patients called CreakyJoints! If you live with arthritis – and there’s a strong chance you are, given you’re reading this post – you should check them out. They also created an app called ArthritisPower with rheumatology researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham! I highly suggest that app to keep track of your arthritis symptoms. This is not sponsored: I just really like CreakyJoints and the ArthritisPower app.What one patient's arthritis pain feels like Click To Tweet
Pain from bone erosion and/or cartilage damage – Something I have experienced several times in several joints is my RA damaging my cartilage. The abstract of a 2016 study said, “Even successful treatment with complete resolution of synovial inflammatory processes does not lead to full reversal of joint functionality, pointing to the crucial contribution of irreversibly damaged structural components, such as bone and cartilage, to restricted joint mobility” (x). Basically what this means is that even if your RA improves, if it has already damaged your cartilage or bone, there is still pain and difficulty using it.
This study found that “cartilage damage and bone erosion, but not synovial inflammation, are the most important determinants for progressive functional impairment in this chronic erosive arthritis model” (x). This means that, for people who have cartilage damage and bone erosion, those things are bigger factors in the day-to-day use of the joints than synovial inflammation itself.
(For those of you unfamiliar with how inflammatory autoimmune arthritis works, the immune system causes inflammation in synovium, or lining of the joints, and that inflammation leads to cartilage damage and bone erosion.)
Now that we’ve addressed that bone erosion and cartilage damage can be associated with RA, I want to talk about how those things feel. I have had the two of them together in both of my feet, which had to be repaired with synthetic bone grafts in both cases. That pain felt like grinding while I walked, but otherwise it was extremely sharp and stabbing.
I also have cartilage damage alone in my right wrist. Because of where it is, I actually don’t feel it too much in the wrist itself. When I do, my wrist aches, especially when holding heavy things. But I actually feel it most in the ligaments and tendons in my hand, as they are moving over and around damaged cartilage, causing strong aching pain in the knuckles of that hand. When it is particularly bad, it is particularly sharp. There are also cysts around those knuckles, but we don’t know if the cysts or the wrist cartilage damage came first.
Now that I’ve shared my experience with rheumatoid arthritis pain, let’s talk about other types of arthritis. In addition to info from reputable sources, I asked people on Twitter to share what arthritis pain feels like for them. I “only” have RA, so I can’t describe what any of the other types feels like. I’ve included their descriptions of their pain below, as well as where you can find them if you want to connect with more people with arthritis.
What Arthritis Feels Like (According to Others)
The form of arthritis that most people are familiar with is osteoarthritis. Everyday Health says that osteoarthritis includes pain that:
- isn’t noticeable in the morning but gets worse throughout the day
- affects your posture and gait and may cause limping
- aches deep into the joint
That is nowhere near the extensive list of what osteoarthritis feels like. Their full list is here.
I also want to talk about other patients’ experience with rheumatoid arthritis is. Leslie says it feels like “like tiny gnomes chiseling away at my knees, elbows, shoulders, etc.”. I love that description! Unfortunately, “chiseling” is an accurate word for anyone with cartilage damage and/or bone erosion.
Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, and overtime it fuses the spine (x). Areas affected by AS include the joint between the spine and pelvis, low-back vertebrae, places where your tendons and ligaments attach to bones, mainly in your spine, and more (x).
Sebastien is someone with ankylosing spondylitis, and he says, “The pain is variable depending on the area affected. For example in my shoulders it is a dull pain, in my spine it is radiating, in my foot it is piercing. I guess it also depends whether the pain is in the join or ligament”.
Spondyloarthritis is inflammatory arthritis primarily in the spine, but it is in other joints (x). This is slightly different from ankylosing spondylitis as it’s a category of inflammatory arthritis. (The word “spondylitis” itself literally means inflammation of the vertebrae (x)). Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of spondyloarthritis, but just because you have spondyloarthritis doesn’t mean you have ankylosing spondylitis, if that makes sense.
Sarah is a spondyloarthritis patient, and she says, “My biggest areas of pain are back, hips, and chest (costochondritis.) The costochondritis can feel like stabbing pain when I take a deep breath or pain with pressure (like from wearing a bra). The pain in my back tends to be more dull, aching pain, while the pain in my hips/SI joints can feel more sharp or pinching. All of these types of pain are usually worse in the morning when I wake up (esp neck and shoulder stiffness/pain). Although the costochondritis and hip/knee/arm joint pain can be more severe towards the end of the day.”
The costochondritis Sarah mentions is inflammation in the rib cartilage (x). I have also experienced it over the years, and in my experience, there is a lot of stabbing pain. While it itself is not a form of arthritis, it can be caused by some forms (x). While I’m sure others could cause it as well, the more common arthritic causes of costochondritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis (x).
Another form of arthritis I want to mention is psoriatic arthritis. That can include painful “sausage-like” swelling in fingers and toes – which just sounds very painful, especially if you’re wearing rings or socks! – pain where tendons and ligaments attach to your bones, as well as spondylitis.
Lisa has psoriatic arthritis. She says, “I can best describe my pain which is all over, worse in more areas than others and at different or the same time as if you have a bruise and someone is pushing down on it”.
A form of arthritis that people don’t realize is arthritis is gout. Gout is characterized sudden severe pain episodes. This pain is often worst in the first 12 hours of the attack. Some famous people from history with gout are Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, King George IV, King Henry VIII, and Nostradamus (x).
Reactive arthritis is when you have an infection in one area of your body, and it triggers joint pain and swelling (x). It generally starts 1 to 4 weeks after the infection. This pain generally affects knees, ankles, and feet, but you might feel it in your heels, low back, or butt (x). On the other hand, it can also cause inflammation in soft tissue when it enters bone, causing pain in muscles, tendons, and ligaments (x).Arthritis patients explain what arthritis pain feels like Click To Tweet
These are only some forms of arthritis. Like I mentioned above, there are over 100 types of arthritis. Some will have pain similar to what has been described in this post, and some will have different experiences.
I wanted to share the information in this post to help patients feel less alone in their pain, but if your pain doesn’t fit what has been described in this post, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have arthritis.
What does arthritis feel like for you?
Like this post? Check out:
How Is Arthritis Treated?, My Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment + How I Got There, 10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Received My Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis, What You Need To Know about Living with Chronic Pain in the Winter