Arthritis: Causes, Signs & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 11, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University

A woman's hand with visible effects from arthritis

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, arthritis is very common in older Australians. Approximately 1 in 3 Australians or 7 million people in this country are living with arthritis.[1] The two most diagnosed arthritis conditions are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.[1]

Arthritis is one of, if not the leading cause of physical health conditions in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare suggest that slightly more people experience arthritis than back pain or problems.[1] However, around 40% of people living with arthritis experience none or mild pain from their arthritis.[1]

Read on to understand what you should know about arthritis; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that usually develops over time that causes inflammation, swelling, pain and stiffness in the joint(s).[1] There are several arthritis conditions, including rheumatoid, psoriatic and osteoarthritis. Depending on the arthritic condition, one or several joints may be affected.

What are the types of arthritis?

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and each of them has different causes and symptoms. Here are some of the most common arthritis that may affect your joints:


Osteoarthritis develops when the cartilage in your joints breaks down due to repetitive stress, which happens over time. It is commonly referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis.

Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a joint inflammatory condition that affects the spine. It causes progressive back pain and stiffness.

Juvenile arthritis

An autoimmune disease that affects the joints of children aged 16 and below.

Psoriatic arthritis

Occurs in people with a skin condition called psoriasis. Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin condition that develops a rash on the joint area. Over time, it starts affecting the joint itself, causing inflammation and degeneration.


An arthritic condition that causes the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis

An autoimmune condition wherein the body attacks its own cells, causing long-lasting damage to the joint tissues.

Septic arthritis

An inflammatory joint condition due to the infection of joint synovial fluid and joint soft tissues.

Reactive arthritis

Is an inflammation to the joints of your body as a reaction to a recent infection in your organs, such as the bladder and intestine.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Symptoms of arthritis include pain, swelling, reduced range of motion and stiffness in the joints, specifically the ankle, wrist, hands, fingers, back and neck. These symptoms tend to flare up and down over time. Other symptoms include redness, fatigue and bony growths of the affected joints.

Common symptoms of arthritis

  • Joint pain

  • Swelling

  • Joint stiffness

  • Instability

Common symptoms of Osteoarthritis

  • Tenderness

  • Crackling sensation

  • Weakness

  • Muscle wasting

Common symptoms of Ankylosing spondylitis

  • Back and neck pain

  • Stiffness of the lower back and hips

  • Extreme fatigue

Common symptoms of Juvenile arthritis

  • Fever, rash

  • Joint stiffness

  • Eye pain and redness

  • Blurred vision

  • Affects children below 16 years old

Common symptoms of Psoriatic arthritis

Common symptoms of Gout

  • Warmth and tender joints

  • Symptoms usually come and go

  • Intense joint pain

Common symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Pain and joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Nodules

Common symptoms of Septic arthritis

  • Symptoms that develop after a joint surgery

  • Loosening of the joint

  • Joint dislocation may occur

Common symptoms of Reactive arthritis

  • Conjunctivitis

  • Urinary problems

  • Low back pain

  • Rash on soles, palms and mouth

What causes arthritis?

Arthritis is usually caused by a combination of age, previous injuries, family history, autoimmune disorders, obesity or overuse. All of these factors cause inflammation at the joint, leading to arthritic conditions.

Common causes of arthritis

  • Obesity

  • Excessive stress on the joints

  • Inflammation

  • Infection

  • Autoimmune conditions

  • Excessive uric acid in the body

Sports that increase the risk of arthritis

High impact sports that cause a lot of stress to the joints can damage the cartilage that cushions the bones, and lead to the development of arthritis.

  • Basketball

  • Volleyball

  • Soccer

  • Long-distance running

  • Football

How is arthritis diagnosed?

Having arthritis can profoundly affect your quality of life due to the pain and possible instability of the joints. This can limit your social and recreational participation, which may negatively affect your well being.

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing your pain as a type of arthritis. One of the most common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapists are rehabilitation experts that deal with joint diseases and conditions. They can effectively diagnose various types of arthritis and give you an appropriate treatment.

A physiotherapy assessment is simple yet comprehensive. Your physiotherapist will start the consultation with a mini-interview and ask you about your medical history. Take this opportunity to discuss all of your symptoms and concerns regarding your condition.

After taking your medical history, your physiotherapist will perform various physical tests to assess the integrity of your joints and check for other factors that can cause your pain and other symptoms.

Your physiotherapist will then formulate a diagnosis and a specific treatment plan for you that will guide you through your recovery. This will also include:

  • Specific treatment plan

  • Target rehabilitation goals

  • Estimated recovery time

  • Home exercise programs.

How is arthritis treated?

Pain and other symptoms of arthritis can affect your daily activities. In addition, most arthritis tends to progress and worsen if left untreated.

There are several options when it comes to treating arthritis. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs the most frequently is physiotherapy.

Physiotherapists routinely encounter various types of arthritis and joint diseases. They are in the best position to give quality care and hands-on intervention for your condition.

The primary goal of your treatment is to help you manage the pain, improve joint stability and improve your overall function.

Treatment of a condition like arthritis focuses on improvements in lifestyle, and management of symptoms.

Depending on the severity of your arthritis, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments.

  • Manual Therapy - Hands-on technique used by your physiotherapist to improve joint mobility and relieve joint stiffness.

  • Stretching Exercises - Techniques used to maintain joint range of motion and relieve stiffness.

  • Strengthening Exercises - Specific exercises that strengthen the muscles and tendons to help support the joints.

  • Aerobic Exercises and Conditioning - Exercise techniques used to prevent the effects of deconditioning and help you stay active.

  • Postural Training - Exercise techniques to help you keep an optimal posture and improve spinal stability.

Next step - Creating a treatment plan made for you

After your initial assessment, your physiotherapist will create a detailed treatment plan for you to help you maximise your recovery.

Self-care for arthritis

If you think you have arthritis, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  1. Walking regularly

Walking is one of the best forms of physical activity for your body. It decreases joint pain and stiffness and helps you reduce the risk of disability.

  1. Exercise

Low impact exercises such as walking and squats increase the blood flow to your joint cartilage, allowing a natural exchange of vital nutrients from the blood to your joints.

  1. Drink plenty of water

Staying hydrated can reduce inflammation and help you manage the symptoms of arthritis.

  1. Weight loss

Reducing your body weight can decrease the pressure on your joints.

  1. Yoga and breathing exercises

Mild forms of yoga and breathing exercises can help relieve joint stiffness and keep your muscles relaxed, leading to a decrease in pain.

  1. Sun exposure

Morning sun exposure can help your body absorb vitamin D, which helps build strong bones and help maintain the function of your immune system.

Things to avoid:

  1. Avoid smoking

Smoking can stimulate increased inflammatory cells in your body, which can complicate symptoms of arthritis.

  1. Avoid high impact activities

High impact activities such as sports that involve jumping and long-distance running can contribute to the breakdown of joint cartilage.

  1. Avoid added sugar and highly processed foods

Added sugar can worsen symptoms of various types of arthritis. In addition, sugar is linked to obesity and diabetes and can trigger inflammation.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

Some types of arthritis are more severe than others and can cause complications. Most arthritic conditions can lead to the weakening of the bones and may result in osteoporosis.

Various diagnostic imaging tools may be done to help determine the extent of damage in your joint and confirm the diagnosis of arthritis.

  • X-ray – scans for changes in your bone structures

  • Ultrasound – can reveal soft tissue inflammation around the joints

  • MRI – gives a more precise and more detailed view of joint structures

Your GP may do blood tests to scan for the presence of infection and autoimmune diseases.

Pain and inflammation

Depending on your arthritis type, your GP may prescribe you NSAIDs to help you manage the pain and control signs of inflammation. Furthermore, corticosteroid injection may be given if there are signs of severe inflammation.


If an infection is causing your arthritis, you will be given antibiotics to fight off bacteria and other disease-causing agents.

Autoimmune attack

For arthritis caused by autoimmune diseases, you will be given immunosuppressant medications and treatments to help tone down your immune response to your own cells and prevent further joint damage.

Complete joint degeneration

In severe cases, the surface of the joints can be excessively damaged and may require surgery for reconstruction. Weight-bearing joints of the hips and knee can be reconstructed through surgery.

Your GP can coordinate with a physiotherapist to give you treatment that does not rely on long-term pain medications and help you recover from arthritis flare-ups.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for arthritis?

Currently, there is no definitive cure for arthritis. However, lifestyle modification and proper pain management strategies can drastically improve your quality of life.

Staying active and maintaining a positive outlook in life can help prevent complications of arthritis and help you improve your overall function to make daily activities manageable and more enjoyable.

Physiotherapy can restore your joint function, improve your mobility and provide you with conservative pain treatments.

Can arthritis be prevented?

It is impossible to guarantee the prevention of arthritis, there are many complicated factors that lead to a diagnosis and not all of them can be controlled.

These tips below can help reduce the risk of flare-ups of arthritis symptoms, and they may also prevent disease progression.

  • Manage your weight – maintaining a healthy weight can help decrease the stress and damage to your joints.

  • Eat healthy – eating healthy food rich in vitamin D can help build strong bones and immunity.

  • Pace your activity – have an optimal rest time between physical activities to prevent fatigue and overuse injuries to your joints.

  • Stretch frequently – stretching allows your muscles to relax and prevent stiffness.

  • Strengthen your muscles – strengthening your muscles can help stabilise your joints and improve your posture.

  • Exercise regularly – regular low impact exercises can relieve joint stiffness and allow natural lubrication of the joints.

Outlook and the main takeaways

Arthritis is a chronic joint condition that can affect anyone. Depending on the type of arthritis, you may experience various symptoms that can affect the quality of your life.

Fortunately, lifestyle modifications and joint rehabilitation can help you maintain your function and manage the pain. Book a consultation with a physiotherapist today to assess your arthritic condition.


A joint is defined as a single area where two or more bones meet. It allows smooth movements of the bones and adds stability to the body.

Arthritic conditions may damage the structures of the joint and may result in inflammation which causes pain and degeneration of the joint surface and other soft tissues.

Here are the parts of the joints that can be affected by arthritis:


  • Cartilage – this tissue covers the surface of the bones to help reduce the friction on the joints during movements.

Rheumatoid arthritis, gout and septic arthritis

  • Synovial membrane – a layer of connective tissue that lines the joint structures. It creates a synovial fluid for lubrication of the joint and allows smooth movements.

  • Bursa – a fluid-filled sac that provides a cushion between the bone and other soft tissues.

Ankylosing spondylitis, juvenile arthritis

  • Ligaments – surrounds the joint and provide additional support and stability.

Tendon – provides connection between the muscles and the bones to facilitate joint movement.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on April 11, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 11, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on April 11, 2022 has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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