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Signs and symptoms of the most common arthritis types and how ice packs and finger exercises can help

Author: Steve Stretton
January 29, 2021

Creaky, aching and swollen joints are the most common symptoms of arthritis. In the early stages, your arthritis may only cause a mild, burning pain in one of your joints. 

Over time, arthritis can worsen and may affect your fingers, hands, knees, hip and other parts of your body.

If you’re wondering whether you have arthritis, read on to learn about the early symptoms and common forms of this disease, and knuckle up for a few tips to beat pain and swelling. 

What is arthritis?

Arthritis affects more than 50 million adults in the US and over 10 million people in the UK, about half of whom are sidelined from their work by their condition. As a degenerative disease, osteoarthritis is the most common type, followed by rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune joint inflammation.   

Joint pain, swelling, stiffness and body malaise are the most common symptoms of arthritis. While rheumatoid arthritis attacks several joints at one time, osteoarthritis typically begins in a specific joint, which can either be in the knees, hip, fingers and feet.  

How does arthritis develop?

Arthritis develops when the cartilage, the flexible and tough tissue that cushions the joints and bones, wears down over the years, gets inflamed or malfunctions due to other problems. As the cartilage loses its function, the joint swells and loses flexibility.   

With rheumatoid arthritis, the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells, leading to inflammation, particularly swelling in the joint lining. The inflammation spreads to the surrounding tissues and, in severe cases, impacts the other parts of the body, too. 

What are the early signs of arthritis?


This is the first sign of arthritis, with the pain usually described as either a dull ache or a shooting pain. In most patients, joint pain is felt in the morning after waking up, while some sufferers complain of humidity changes as a triggering factor. Some report an achy feeling after joint-use activities like climbing the stairs or gardening. 


Arthritis flare up is similar to inflammation, where pain is accompanied by swelling. In arthritis, your synovial fluid increases due to inflammation, leading to discomfort and limited movement. Synovial fluid, also aptly called joint fluid, is responsible for cushioning the bone and reducing friction during movements.

Joint stiffness

As problems in the cartilage and synovial fluid develop, joints start to feel sore and  bones begin hitting each other. Joint stiffness peaks in the morning, because after hours of dozing off, joint fluids may need to be activated before they could do their job. 

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Osteoarthritis symptoms

Weight bearing joints such as the hips and knees are the common targets of  osteoarthritis, although it also affects the neck, toes and finger joints. 

While pain and symptoms slightly vary from one arthritis sufferer to another, below are the common descriptions for the kind of pain caused by osteoarthritis and its accompanying symptoms:

  • Pain that develops after joint use 
  • Pain that worsens throughout the day 
  • Pain that radiates to the back, groin and thighs 
  • Pain that throbs or pulses deep into the joint
  • Pain that comes and goes 
  • Pain that disrupts daily activities
  • Pain and stiffness that cause mobility issues (i.e limping)
  • Joint stiffness after inactivity 
  • Bones rubbing together inside the joint
  • Tenderness in the affected area
  • Bone growth around the joint

While osteoarthritis symptoms generally focus on the affected joint and nearby structures, the other type, rheumatoid arthritis, affects a much wider part of the body.  

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

Initially, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects the joints in your fingers (knuckles) and toes, then later spreads to the bigger joints. Joint pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of joint functions, as well as deformities, are the most common symptoms.  

RA is usually symmetrical and symptoms are reflected in both parts of the affected area. For instance, you’ll feel pain and swelling in both left and right parts of your fingers, toes and either side of whichever joint the rheumatoid arthritis is attacking.

What’s worse, as an autoimmune disease, it can affect the whole body (outside the joints) if left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, some 40 percent of RA sufferers experience symptoms that affect the skin, eyes, vital organs and nerve tissues. It’s not uncommon to hear patients complaining of shortness of breath, fever and chest pain along with their rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups.  

Joint pain 

Joint ache may feel like a sprain or a broken bone in your fingers, with pain ranging from mild, moderate to severe. Your fingers and other body parts may feel painful to the touch as well.  

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms such as joint pain, swelling and tenderness typically last for over six weeks. 

Joint swelling and stiffness 

As a form of inflammation, joint swelling goes hand in hand with arthritis, which can become chronic and cause general fatigue. 

Joint stiffness occurs in the morning and you may find it difficult to get out of bed or walk around the house because of stiff and achy ankles, feet, knees and hands. 


Arthritis pain can cause sleep disruption and deprivation. When you can’t get enough sleep, you’ll feel tired and fatigued.  

Difficulty breathing

Some sufferers with a history of smoking develop arthritis-related lung disease, among them bronchiectasis, pleural disease and bronchiolitis.  

Chronic inflammation may cause scarring in your lungs, leading to breathing difficulties, chronic cough, fatigue and loss of appetite. Abnormal lung tissues and benign (non-cancer causing) nodules develop in few patients. 

Skin problems

Arthritis and the medications used to treat its symptoms can impact the body’s largest organ, which manifest as skin rashes and itchiness, and bruising.

Few cases of severe rheumatoid arthritis patients develop rheumatoid nodules or lumps under the skin. Most nodules develop in the hands, knuckles, fingers and elbows. They’re usually nothing to worry about, although in rare occasions these nodules may develop in the lungs, heart and vocal chords, which can cause serious health issues. 

Eye problems

Any inflammatory condition that impacts the collagen, such as RA, can affect the eyes, particularly the sclera and cornea, which are made up almost entirely of collagen, says retina physician and surgeon Dr. Sunir J. Garg of the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your chances of developing dry eye syndrome and scleritis are higher. Some patients with milder arthritis develop eye pain and redness, blurry vision and sensitivity to light.

Psoriatic arthritis symptoms

Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune disease that develops in some individuals who have psoriasis, a skin condition characterized by red skin patches and silvery scales. In some instances, though, joint problems appear even before the skin patches. 

Like the other more common arthritis types, psoriatic arthritis’ (PA) main symptoms include joint pain, stiffness and swelling. PA affects mostly your fingertips and the spine, but it can also affect any body part. Changes to the nails, rashes, eye redness and pain are accompanying symptoms of psoriatic arthritis. 

Perhaps the most distinct sign of PA is the sausage-like swelling of the whole finger or toe. 

Gout symptoms

Gout is a type of arthritis triggered by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. 

Although it often impacts the base of the big toe, gout can impact other joints including the elbow, ankle, knee, wrist and fingers. 

Sudden and intense pain on your big toe, accompanied by swelling, redness and tenderness, are the common signs of gout. 

Gout can also cause tophi (singular tophus) formation, which looks like large bumps on the joints under the skin, in some individuals. Tophus typically forms in the knuckles of individuals with serious and chronic gout issues.

How can ice packs help ease hand or finger arthritis?

Warm packs can ease joint and muscle stiffness, while cold packs can minimize inflammation symptoms such as pain and swelling. 

For many forms of arthritis, contrasting therapy, or switching between warm and cold packs, may be better. For instance, heat application is best in the morning to loosen joints or to warm up before any activity or exercise. On the other hand, cold therapy application is best after exercise to prevent worsening inflammation and reduce pain.  

Get the best of both therapeutic worlds with this glove-shaped hand ice pack that can be used warm or cold. Highly recommended by users from around the globe, this hand ice pack provides immediate relief from hand pain and swelling, joint inflammation, chemotherapy neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, eczema and other conditions. 

Which finger exercises are best for arthritis sufferers? 

Hand and finger exercises may help provide comfort from joint pain and stiffness, as well as increase hand and finger mobility. 

Here’s a list of a few finger movements you can do. There’s no limit on the number of repetitions, but do stop when your fingers start to ache. 

  • Make a fist

Create a ball with your hand, with the thumb on the outside. Hold for a few seconds then release and spread your fingers wide. Repeat. 

  • Finger stretches

Gently straighten your fingers as flat as you can while placing your palm on a flat surface. Hold for a few seconds and then release, and then repeat.

  • Claw stretches

Hold your hand out with palms facing you. Bend your fingertips to make it look like a claw. Hold and repeat.

  • Grips and squeezes

Squeeze a stress ball, or any other small and soft ball, for a few seconds, and then release and repeat.


  • Finger bends

Bend the fingers towards the palm, reaching as far as you can. Hold, release and repeat.

  • Finger lifts

This exercise involves putting the palms flat on a surface and gently spreading the fingers. Then, one at a time, lift each finger off the surface. Slowly lower each finger back down and repeat with the next one.

  • Thumb extension

Place your hand palms down on a flat surface. Wrap a rubber band at the base of your finger joints then gently move your thumb away from your fingers as far as you can. 

  • Thumb flexes

Stretch out your hand in front, with palms facing you. Extend your thumb away from your other fingers as far as you can, and then bend your thumb across your palm so it touches the base of your small finger. Hold, release and repeat. 

  • Finger hand shapes

Form your fingers to create “O” or “C” shapes. Hold the shape for a few seconds, then release and repeat. 

  • Wrist stretches

Hold your right arm out, palm facing down. Gently press with your left hand until you feel a stretch in your arm and hand. Hold, release, and repeat.


Early diagnosis is key to managing arthritis properly, as there is no available cure for this disease. While other conditions can set off symptoms similar to arthritis, any unexplainable and persistent pain, joint swelling and stiffness requires an appointment with your doctor.   

Are you currently suffering from arthritis or suspect that you might have it? How do you manage swelling and pain? Tell us more about it in the comments section below.  

Hi, I’m Steve Stretton, owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. If you’d like to know more about gel packs and our cool products, don’t hesitate, write us a message.

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