What does osteoarthritis feel like? 4 most common symptoms

what does osteoarthritis feel like

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So what does osteoarthritis feel like and what should I expect? Common symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility. It is important to be able to identify these symptoms in order to figure out the best course of action for treatment. Osteoarthritis is common in weight bearing joints including knees and hips but can also commonly be found in hands, as well as upper and lower spine.

Arthritis can come in all shapes and forms, and can be different for each person. So what does osteoarthritis feel like for those who have it? Each person has a different experience with arthritis but are united by common symptoms. These are real client experiences. Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • “My knee feels stiff if I sit for a long period of time and when I wake up in the morning. Once I move around a little bit it feels better. The worst part is how unstable my knee feels. When I put all my weight on it, it feels like its going to give out. I don’t have a lot of trust in it.”
  • “My back feels tight when I bend over and when I stand for a long time. I get muscle spasms sometimes and the pain goes down into my hips.”
  • “My knee started to feel more painful over the past year. After I walk for a while it swells. Ice usually makes it feel better. The back of my knee has started to feel really tight and it can be hard to straighten it at times.”
  • “I feel this pain deep in my hip that goes down into my thigh, especially when I walk for a long time. Sometimes when I lay on my hip at night it is painful.”

In each situation of these situations above, there are a few common symptoms that many people share. Let’s explore:

  • Joint stiffness in the morning
  • Dull, aching pain deep in your joint
  • Occasional joint flare ups with increased pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Joint swelling 
  • Decreasing flexibility
  • Crepitus or “noisy” joints

You may have some of these, all of these, or a combination of other symptoms. My first order of business is to tell you these are common symptoms of osteoarthritis. The good news, most of these can also be managed and prevented. The more you know about each of these symptoms, the less scary they become. 

Being prepared and confident in your plan to manage them can significantly reduce your stress and frustration. Leaving these symptoms to become uncontrolled can lead to early surgeries, more pain pills, and feelings of hopelessness. This can absolutely be avoided though if we take the right steps.

What does osteoarthritis feel like? Let’s look into the 4 most common symptoms in depth and explore simple tips that may bring you relief:

1. Joint stiffness:

Joint stiffness can be at the top of the list when trying to decipher “what does osteoarthritis feel like” as it is one of the most common symptoms.

Oftentimes if you have arthritis, when you wake up in the morning your joints are stiff. This is because our inflammatory cells love it when we don’t move, they have time to nestle in. When we are sleeping, we usually don’t move very often. So when we wake up, we have more inflammation and stiffness. You may notice stiffness after staying in the same position for 1+ hours. The longer we stay in one position, the more inflammatory cells that accumulate and the harder it is to get them out of there! Typically sitting can be one of the most aggravating positions.

Simply moving your legs while sitting or standing can very easily relieve joint stiffness. Ultimately, we want to decrease the time we are spent in one position. It can be difficult when concentrating on work, playing with grandchildren, and cooking- all tasks where you are distracted by something and movement may slip your mind.

If your joints feel like cement blocks, there is hope! There are a few quick and simple fixes to help joint stiffness related to arthritis. This video below explains tips and tricks on how to control inflammation that plays a significant role in joint stiffness.

2. Pain while trying to sleep:

Commonly, people report pain wakes them up at night or keeps them up, especially during a flare. Some find it is hard to get comfortable or their legs even become restless. These are popular signs of osteoarthritis. This is because when we try to fall asleep, we may be hyper-focused on our pain. Where as during the day, you usually have much more distractions. But, quality sleep is VITAL to daily functioning not only physically but mentally too. It can also affect how sensitive your body is to pain. If you are having trouble controlling pain or joint stiffness, you may be missing something related to sleep. Take a look below to find out how important sleep actually is

“He describes a pain experiment done with healthy volunteers at Johns Hopkins University. All volunteers were tested for pain sensitivity at the beginning of the experiment. Some had their sleep hours cut by being kept awake past their normal bedtime for a few nights. Others were woken up every hour throughout the night but had the same total sleep time as the delayed sleep group. Identical pain stimuli were given at the beginning and end of the experiment, and all volunteers were more sensitive at the end. But those with interrupted sleep became even more sensitive to pain.”

Burel Goodin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at University of Alabama, Birmingham

Sleep may actually be adding to your pain. Poor sleep quality can impact our mood, motivation for movement, our eating habits, our decision making, and actually increase stress.

You may know that 7-8 hours is key every night. Making a conscious effort to improve your sleep , especially with arthritis. How can we get better sleep? Try these tips:

  • Limit activity an hour before you go to bed, especially activities that tend to flare up your pain. You don’t want to go to bed with irritated joints.
  • Choose a supportive mattress that is not too hard, find the best mattresses for arthritis here
  • Try to go to sleep at the same time every night, consistency is key to getting your body into a routine
  • Increase your movement throughout the day. This helps to expend more energy and make your body actually feel tired.
  • Use pillows to support your joints. This can be especially helpful using a pillow between your legs when you have hip or knee pain. You can also prop your arm up on a pillow if your shoulder bothers you. A contour pillow may also help with neck pain or stiffness.
  • You can use heat prior to bed can induce relaxation, optimum time is about 15-20 minutes on the painful area (but don’t fall asleep with a heating pad on!) 

3. Joint swelling after activity:

When our joints our swollen, they feel heavy, don’t move as easily, and can be more painful. Joint swelling is common, especially in knees and hands. Joint swelling can occur after too much activity or with a recent increase in inflammation (from foods, inactivity, or weight gain).

One of the best ways to not only manage but prevent joint swelling is movement. Keep in mind, if you have had a fall or felt a “tweak” or “pop” in your knee and you notice swelling, it may be a sign of an injury. This might be worth getting looked at or at least notifying your physician. If you notice swelling without a provocative event, try these tips below to manage your swelling:

  • Neoprene compression sleeves: knee compression sleeves can work great to keep swelling down and assist in pain relief as well. Using compression can also give you more confidence in your knee as the sleeve essentially gives your joint a hug. Knee sleeves are an inexpensive way to find some relief.
  • Compression gloves: hand compression gloves work great to not only help with swelling of finger joints but also keep them warm which our hands love. I have had quite a few patients who have had luck with these gloves, especially during a flare up.
  • Elevation and compression socks: try to elevate your legs after activity and try not to keep them down for a prolonged period of time. This will prevent inflammation and fluid from accumulating in your lower legs. Avoiding sitting or lying in the same position can increase joint swelling as the fluid has more time to settle in one place. The more movement we do, the more we can flush out the swelling. If you have a history of chronic swelling, compression socks may also be helpful.
  • ACE wraps: if you have any of these lying around, they can act just like a compression sleeve. You can wrap them around any joint that you are noticing swelling. These will be a little less effective than the compression sleeves above because you can’t regulate the compression but nonetheless, they are great for temporary relief.
  • Regular movement. The more you move the less time swelling has to settle! Even just light movement can really make a difference. Your muscles help to  pump the swelling out as well so let’s use them. You can find some sample exercises here.

4. Joint pain:

As you can see there is a combination of things that play into joint pain itself. There are lots of things that can help with temporary pain relief such as NSAIDs, ice, heat, and elevation. If we want this pain relief to last though, we have to understand where it is coming from.

I can tell you that your pain is likely not caused solely by “joint damage”. There is a lot more that goes into pain including amount of movement, sleep quality, how you control joint swelling, and inflammation levels. Keeping stiffness and swelling down can make a huge impact on arthritis pain. Joint pain can be debilitating if we leave it uncontrolled

Adopting the mindset of “I can’t change my pain” or “there’s nothing I can do about my pain” can be extremely limiting. Collectively using the simple tips above and teaching your body how to move without pain can be very helpful to finding relief aside from pain pills and avoiding surgery. There are things you can do for pain management!

One of the best ways to manage our pain is controlling inflammation. This is done with weight loss, increasing activity, reducing intake of inflammatory foods, and listening to our bodies (likely all things we’ve heard before). You can find our top list of anti-inflammatory foods here. But, trying to control all of these at once can be overwhelming.

My patients always find it most helpful if we focus on one of these first. Small steps are key to forming lifelong habits. We usually start with movement because movement is such a huge part our lives. We have to be able to move, preferably without pain. Many people are scared of movement because they aren’t sure if movement is actually making things worse. I’m here to tell you that exercise doesn’t have to hurt and can actually be beneficial for arthritis.

If you are looking for a place to get started, hop into our FREE 5 Day Arthritis Exercise Challenge. You will get 5 workout videos, created by me in order to show you that you can move even with arthritis! If you have weight loss goals you’re trying to hit or are just looking to get moving again, this is for you! Sign up here.

So what does osteoarthritis feel like?

Typically it feels like joint pain, occasional swelling, and stiffness. I find that many times, especially when newly diagnosed these symptoms can be scary because you don’t know what they mean or if they are dangerous. Knowing more information about each of these symptoms can truly help you feel more confident. Having a plan can significantly reduce stress and frustration around these symptoms. Think of your most limiting symptom or the one that causes you the most stress after reading this post and implement 1-2 of these tips above. Take it one step at a time. You can do this. I am here for you.

If you are newly diagnosed, it is extremely important that you get yourself on the right track to continue to manage your condition naturally. This can be done simply by understanding more about the condition and realizing what can be done to help. I highly recommend checking out this short course to get some amazing insight and benefit.

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Dr. Alyssa Kuhn is a physical therapist and arthritis specialist with Keep the Adventure Alive. She has helped arthritis sufferers all over the country finally break free from their pain without surgery or more pills. Helping patients who feel frustrated and hopeless, finally find confidence again. She recently helped a patient with 5+ years of knee pain, achieve one of her biggest goals of returning to running. It is possible! She has lots of adventures she loves like hiking, biking, and skiing. She wants you to have adventures too. There is such a lack of positive and optimistic information out there about arthritis and Dr. Alyssa is on a mission to change that once and for all.

Disclaimer: Dr. Alyssa Kuhn is a doctor of physical therapy. This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.You