What Does Arthritis Feel Like?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
August 30, 2017

What does arthritis feel like? On a scale of 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, a number of people rate their pain at 7 or higher.

Ever feel like you’ve been hit by a bus? How about having a 40-pound cannonball chained to your leg? Another popular complaint is not being able to move because it feels like you’ve fallen from a mountaintop.

Selah Dodd knows these feelings, and what makes it worse is many people don’t believe her because her pain is invisible. “People honestly look at me as if I’m faking,” she said. “I don’t have scars, blood, or broken bones.”

Dodd is one of the millions of American adults who suffer from arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation lists more than 100 different forms of arthritis and related diseases. The most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout. Unfortunately, all of these are painful at times.


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Osteoarthritis happens when the protective cartilage inside your joint breaks down, making movement painful and difficult. When it flairs up, the bones of your joint can rub against one another, causing severe pain. The pain can increase throughout the day, making movement almost impossible.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects your joints and other organs, which are attacked by your body’s immune system. What’s happening here is that when your body senses a virus, foreign bacteria, or other invader, your immune system kicks in. It attacks the lining of your joints, breaking it down and damaging it. Dodd has this form and, as a result, ranks her pain between 8 and 10, and sometimes higher. “When it flairs up at work, my coworkers sometimes notice the painful look on my face,” she said. “My face stiffens and I’m frowning because I’m in so much pain.”

What does arthritis feel like?

The pain can affect your feet, ankles, wrists, finger, and all of your muscles. People often say they feel exhausted, sore, and that their joints are on fire.

Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis. Here the immune system attacks connective tissue in your body. When this happens tendons, ligaments, and joints become inflamed, which is excruciatingly painful. Sometimes it’s noticeable; fingers or toes can swell, making it hard to move.

Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain. It can come and go or be constant. “One of my friends has this, and it’s puzzling to many because — again — you can’t see the pain,” Dodd said. “The pain can be caused by a light touch that most people won’t notice. My friend winces in pain when it flairs up, and she’s gently touched. A light touch can feel like a hard punch.”

Gout is caused by excessive uric acid crystals in the blood stream. It attacks your joints and causes an extreme amount of pain. Sharp pain can come suddenly and at night, making it impossible to sleep.
Throbbing, aching, sharp, and shooting pains are also common words used to describe the suffering. “The pain can be exhausting, too,” Dodd said.

What can you do?

If you believe you have arthritis, it’s wise to keep a list of what your pain feels like, and where it occurs (such as in a specific joint). “This way,” Dodd said, “you’ll be able to talk to your physician about what you’re feeling, and he’ll be able to rule out and zero in on what type of arthritis you’re suffering from.”

Dodd kept a list of how she felt and tried her best to describe her level of pain. “This helped my doctor figure out that I had rheumatoid arthritis,” she said.

She sees a physical therapist and has found that exercise helps. She also takes some anti-inflammatory medication when her rheumatoid arthritis flairs up. “There’s no cure for auto-immune types of arthritis like mine,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of research and have talked to my doctor so that I can manage it as best as possible.”

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March 18, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA