I have been diagnosed with arthralgia. The doctor said it’s an arthritic condition. Although my feet hurt most of the time, especially in the morning, my doctor suggested nothing to help treat the condition. The joints in my hands also sometimes have pain. The pain in my hands seems to worsen when the weather changes, such as when a storm approaches. I have started an exercise program with weight machines and some aerobic activity to help take off weight, as I am about 25 pounds overweight. Please define athralgia and tell me what can I do to ease the pain.
Arthralgia is a medical term meaning joint pain (arthr = joint; algia = pain). Many doctors use this term when there is pain in one or several joints but no sign of arthritis (inflammation in the joints).
Some doctors fall into the habit of calling all joint or even muscle pains arthritis, but this is often inaccurate, since they don’t actually know if the joint is inflammed or if the joint pain is a part of a larger inflammatory process in the body. Your doctor has used the more accurate term, arthralgia, since he doesn’t know or think the joints are actually inflammed.
Arthralgia is really a symptom, not a diagnosis, and it may occur in many different diseases. Using this term means that your doctor doesn’t know or hasn’t identified the disease or condition causing the pain. It’s therefore used as a temporary label until a more specific diagnosis can be made.
There are, of course, many different types of arthritis, all of which will cause joint pain. The term arthritis requires that changes in the joint or joints be present in addition to pain. These may be obvious, such as redness or swelling or tenderness of the joint, or they may be internal and not visible except by X-ray or arthroscopy. Either way, some inflammatory change must be present. Most common is the wear and tear type of arthritis called osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis, which reflects the deterioration of the cartilage in joints with use and age. It is limited to the joints, often the large ones, such as the hips or knees. Osteoarthritis is not associated with a widespread disease throughout the body, although many joints may be affected.
Rheumatoid arthritis, by contrast, is a generalized inflammatory condition mostly affecting the joints. Although it typically hits the joints of the fingers and hands, producing swelling, redness, and tenderness, any joint in the body can be affected. A blood test, the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) will usually be positive and is indicative of the activity of the generalized inflammatory process. There is also a rheumatoid arthritis screening test (different labs use different names for it), which is often positive in cases of rheumatoid arthritis. False-positive tests are also fairly common — that is, a person may test positive even if he or she doesn’t have rheumatoid arthritis. It is therefore a good confirmation test for someone who has typical arthritic symptoms and changes in the joints, but it’s not very useful as a screening test.
Lupus is another generalized inflammatory condition that can cause arthritis, in addition to affecting other tissues. There are a number of blood tests that can be useful in confirming the disease in someone with a typical clinical presentation.
Other well-defined arthritic conditions include gouty arthritis, caused by the presence of urate crystals in the joints, and the arthritis of acute rheumatic fever. In these conditions, one or several joints will show the signs of redness, swelling, and tenderness that I mentioned as part of the definition of an arthritis.
A number of infectious diseases, especially viral ones, may cause temporary arthritis. Hepatitis B and C will occasionally do this, as well as German measles or rubella. Temporary arthritis is one of the uncommon side effects of rubella vaccination. The arthritis in these viral illnesses is not usually a major part of the disease, and it is temporary. The joints are left undamaged, as are the joints affected by acute rheumatic fever, so no joint deformities will result.
Many doctors will treat arthralgias with an anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), because of its pain-relieving properties. These drugs are also the mainstay of treatment for the various kinds of arthritis. But there are several other treatments that may be effective in these cases, so each case be individually evaluated by the doctor.
The fact that you have morning pain, as well as pain in the small joints of the hands may be a clue that a real arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, is present. Complicating the picture is the fact that arthralgias may be present for several years with no signs of inflammation, only to later develop into obvious rheumatoid arthritis or degenerative arthritis. It is therefore impossible to predict whether your pain is truly arthralgia, which will never turn into arthritis, or the early manifestations of a true arthritis.
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