At the beginning of a rheumatoid arthritis flare, joints can feel hot, you can feel tired, weak and ill, and sometimes lose your appetite. Osteoarthritis feels like your joints are grinding or creaking.

What is arthritis?

When you think of arthritis you’ll probably think of stiff, sore, aching joints, but what should you expect as part of normal ageing and what are the signs that you should see your doctor?

Arthritis affects more than ten million people in the UK alone, so it’s a widespread problem affecting your ability to move, function and make the most of life. The most common causes of arthritis are the wear-and-tear type known as osteoarthritis and inflammatory types such as rheumatoid arthritis. They can both cause the classical signs and symptoms of pain, joint swelling, stiffness and general fatigue- but there can be differences in the pattern of pain and in your overall health.

If you would like to learn more about Arthritis; the history, causes, and the various treatments, see Arthritis: A Deeper Dive

What does arthritis feel like?

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation, both in the joints and in the rest of the body. The symptoms can vary hugely between individuals and they can also come and go over a period of time, with symptoms sometimes flaring up and becoming much more severe.

At the beginning of a flare-up:

The symptoms may develop suddenly or can gradually build-up over a number of weeks. You may notice that your joints feel hot and painful with a throbbing ache. The small joints in your hands and feet are often affected first and the disease tends to strike symmetrically on both sides of the body. The pain and stiffness are often worse after you’ve been resting and it can be particularly bad in the early mornings, easing up as you get moving, however unlike osteoarthritis, it can take a few hours to loosen up and feel less uncomfortable. You may also feel progressively more unwell.

During a flare-up:
You may feel tired, weak and ill. Some sufferers feel feverish, sweaty and lose their appetites, which can lead to weight loss. Many say they feel like they’ve been hit by a bus. As the joint lining becomes increasingly inflamed they swell and become red and hot to the touch. The pain is often throbbing and the joints stiffen so that they can be difficult to move. If your hands are affected it can be impossible to bend your fingers and make a fist. Other parts of the body can also be affected leading to dry eyes or chest pain. If you’re feeling unwell and particularly if you’ve been suffering for more than two weeks, it’s important to seek medical assessment and advice.

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After a flare-up:
When the inflammation fades, the pain and malaise can also decrease and you’ll feel better and regain function. However, the disease can damage the joints, leading to ongoing problems even in-between flare-ups. Some people may develop firm swellings called rheumatoid nodules around the affected joints. The inflammation can cause the soft tissues supporting the joint to be stretched or ruptured, leading to deformity of the joints, there can also be osteoarthritis, compounding the problem. This means that there can be significant pain and problems with movement after the inflammation fades, however, a few people can be relatively pain-free even with very distorted joints. Despite this, it is important to get the inflammation under control as soon as possible to prevent joint destruction and disability.


This ‘wear and tear’ arthritis is caused by degeneration of the joints, and becomes more prevalent as we get older. Our joints go through a lot during their working life, supporting our weight and facilitating our movement, which can lead to deterioration over time.

Osteoarthritis causes joint pain and stiffness, which may come and go. Any joint can be affected, although the knees, hips and hands are more at risk and the pattern isn’t necessarily symmetrical. The pain can be worse in the mornings but usually gets better after half an hour or so. Some people notice swelling and soreness, but the joints aren’t usually red or hot, as in rheumatoid arthritis, and although symptoms can be intermittent, often triggered by the climate or your level of activity, there don’t tend to be dramatic flare-ups and you shouldn’t feel unwell in yourself.

Clicking and cracking

Joints can make all sorts of different noises, which can be anything from a nuisance to downright unnerving. Perfectly healthy joints can pop or crack due to the ligaments snapping like sails in the wind. However, arthritic joints may grind and creak because the bone surfaces are roughened and uneven.

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Numbness and nerve irritation

Arthritic joints can pinch nerves leading to numbness, weakness and pain. A dull ache and a numb sensation in the arm may be caused by nerve irritation in the neck, similarly, leg and buttock pain can be precipitated by back problems.

If you’re in pain, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Painkillers, medication, movement and therapy can help relieve discomfort and increase movement so that you can go on with living your life to the full.

Caring for someone with arthritis

The key to helping someone with arthritis is to stay positive and be sensitive to their mental health and wellbeing. Pain isn’t fun, and the reality is that for most people with arthritis the condition will get worse, not better.

If you are caring for someone with arthritis, hometouch can help. All of the hometouch live-in carers have gone through a thorough 42-point vetting process, and only 5% are accepted. You choose the live-in carer you want to work with, and we provide support with contracts, payments, and holiday and sickness cover.

Find out more about Artritis:

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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