Polyarthritis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment (2023)

Overview

What is polyarthritis?

Polyarthritis is the medical term for having arthritis that affects five or more of your joints at the same time. You might see it referred to as polyarticular arthritis.

Polyarthritis isn’t a specific type of arthritis — it’s a diagnosis your healthcare provider will give you to say you’re experiencing arthritis in many joints at once.

Arthritis affects your joints (areas where your bones meet and move). It usually causes inflammation or degeneration (breakdown) of your joints. This makes joints painful, stiff or hard to move.

The most common joints affected by arthritis include your:

  • Feet and ankles.
  • Hands, wrists and fingers.
  • Hips.
  • Knees.
  • Lower back.
  • Neck.

If you have polyarthritis, your arthritis symptoms might be more severe because you’ll be experiencing them in many joints at once.

Your provider might classify the polyarthritis as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical polyarthritis affects joints on both sides of your body equally — both of your knees, for example. Asymmetrical polyarthritis affects joints only on one side or joints that don’t match — you might have asymmetrical polyarthritis if an uneven number of joints is affected.

What’s the difference between oligoarticular arthritis and polyarthritis?

If you have arthritis in more than one joint, your provider will classify it based on how many joints are affected.

Oligoarticular arthritis is the term for having arthritis in two to four joints. Polyarthritis is the medical definition of arthritis that affects five or more of your joints.

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Polyarthritis can be caused by any condition that affects your joints. Your symptoms (and how severe they are) will depend on what’s causing polyarthritis, and which of your joints are affected.

Talk to your provider about any new joint pain, stiffness or other symptoms you notice. They’ll develop a treatment plan that’s specific to your case of polyarthritis and where it’s affecting you.

Who does polyarthritis affect?

You’re more likely to develop polyarthritis if you have a higher risk for developing arthritis in the first place. Arthritis can affect anyone. Some people are more likely to develop arthritis, including:

  • People older than 50.
  • Women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
  • People who have autoimmune diseases.
  • People who have obesity.
  • Athletes.

How common is polyarthritis?

Arthritis is very common. Experts estimate that one-third of adults under 64 have some form of arthritis. Half of men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) older than 65 have arthritis. Two-thirds of women and people assigned female at birth older than 65 have it.

It’s hard to estimate how common polyarthritis is because many people don’t know they have it and don’t get it diagnosed. This is especially true because the treatment for one joint with arthritis might help reduce symptoms in other joints that aren’t as painful or stiff.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of polyarthritis?

The most common symptoms of polyarthritis include:

  • Joint pain.
  • Stiffness.
  • A feeling of heat or warmth.
  • Discoloration.
  • Swelling.
  • A feeling of tenderness on or near a joint.

Inflammatory vs. noninflammatory polyarthritis

Depending on what’s causing the polyarthritis, your provider will classify it as inflammatory or noninflammatory. Inflammatory polyarthritis causes inflammation in your affected joints. It will make you have symptoms like swelling, discoloration and warmth near your joints. It’s more likely to be caused by an autoimmune disease or infection.

Noninflammatory polyarthritis won’t cause swelling in your joints. It’s more likely to be caused by osteoarthritis or other types of “wear and tear” that happen when the cartilage that cushions your joints breaks down over time.

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What causes polyarthritis?

Polyarthritis can be caused by several conditions. Some people with polyarthritis have one type of arthritis that’s present throughout their body. Others have a condition that triggers arthritis in their joints as a symptom or side effect. The most common causes of polyarthritis include:

Arthritis that spreads to multiple joints

If you have arthritis, you’re more likely to develop polyarthritis over time. Any type of arthritis can become polyarthritis, but the most common ones include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Psoriatic arthritis.
  • Osteoarthritis.
  • Gout.
  • Calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease (CPPD, or pseudogout).
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

Autoimmune diseases

An autoimmune disease is the result of your immune system accidentally attacking your body instead of protecting it. It’s unclear why your immune system does this. These attacks can trigger certain types of arthritis or other conditions that cause it. Autoimmune diseases that cause polyarthritis include:

  • Lupus.
  • Sarcoidosis.
  • Scleroderma.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Psoriatic arthritis.

Infections

Some viral and bacterial infections can trigger polyarthritis. Your body’s immune response to the virus or bacteria can be too strong or catch your joints in the crossfire of fighting the infection and trigger polyarthritis. Some infections that can lead to polyarthritis include:

  • Viral hepatitis.
  • Lyme disease.
  • Rheumatic fever.
  • Mononucleosis (mono).
  • Parvovirus.
  • Whipple disease.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Diagnosis and Tests

How is polyarthritis diagnosed?

Your provider will diagnose polyarthritis with a physical exam and tests. They’ll look at and feel your painful joints. They’ll ask you when you started feeling any symptoms and how intense they are. Your provider will also check your range of motion (how far you can move a joint).

Your provider will check you for other conditions that might cause your symptoms. This is called performing a differential diagnosis. This will help them rule out other issues before diagnosing polyarthritis. Some other symptoms and conditions they might check for include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Sore throat (pharyngitis).
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Hemochromatosis.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon.

Which tests are done to diagnose polyarthritis?

You might need some imaging tests to take pictures of your joints, including:

  • X-rays.
  • MRI.
  • Ultrasound.

Your provider might also perform a joint aspiration if you’re experiencing swelling. Your provider will insert a thin needle into your joint to drain the fluid. They’ll send a sample of the fluid to a lab. Tests can determine the cause of the fluid buildup.

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You might need blood tests or other lab tests to check for signs of infections or other conditions.

Management and Treatment

How is polyarthritis treated?

How your case of polyarthritis is treated depends on a few factors:

  • What’s causing it.
  • Which type of arthritis you have.
  • How severe your symptoms are.

Your provider will tell you which treatments you need based on your specific symptoms. Polyarthritis is usually treated with:

  • Medications: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs and acetaminophen can reduce symptoms like pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy: Your provider or physical therapist will give you stretches and exercises to increase your range of motion and strengthen the muscles near your affected joint.
  • Injections: Some people need injections of corticosteroids or viscosupplementation directly into their joints.
  • Arthroplasty: You might need joint replacement surgery. Your provider or surgeon will tell you what to expect and how long it will take to recover.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of developing polyarthritis?

You can lower your chances of developing polyarthritis by:

  • Avoiding tobacco products.
  • Doing low-impact, non-weight bearing exercise.
  • Following a diet and exercise plan that’s healthy for you.
  • Wearing the proper safety equipment during any physical activity to reduce your risk of joint injuries.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have polyarthritis?

You might have acute polyarthritis that only occurs temporarily or while you’re recovering from an infection. If you have polyarthritis that lasts for a long time or comes back in the future (recurs) you have what’s known as chronic polyarthritis.

Since there’s no cure for arthritis, most people need to manage arthritis for the rest of their lives. Your provider will help you find the right combination of treatments to reduce your symptoms.

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Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Visit your provider as soon as you notice any symptoms in your joints. Because polyarthritis can be caused by so many conditions, it’s important to get any new pain, swelling or discoloration examined right away.

Don’t ignore your symptoms. If you have an infection, it’s super important to get it treated right away before it spreads or gets worse.

When should I go to the ER?

Go to the emergency room if you’re experiencing severe pain or if you suddenly can’t move a joint or a part of your body.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • Which type of arthritis do I have?
  • What’s causing it?
  • Which tests will I need?
  • Which treatments will I need?
  • How long will my symptoms last?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between polyarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Polyarthritis means you have arthritis in five or more joints at the same time. It’s not a specific disease on its own. It’s a diagnosis that means you’re experiencing arthritis in many joints at once.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a specific type of arthritis. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks the tissue lining the joints on both sides of your body. It can affect any number of joints, and it’s possible for rheumatoid arthritis to affect enough of your joints to be classified as polyarthritis.

What is seronegative polyarthritis?

Seronegative arthritis is a form of rheumatoid arthritis. It’s possible for it to affect five or more of your joints and become polyarthritis. Talk to your provider or rheumatologist if you have questions or if you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and notice new or changing symptoms.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

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Polyarthritis is arthritis that affects many of your joints at the same time. It can be painful and frustrating. Your provider will help you understand what’s causing the polyarthritis and when you’re more likely to experience symptoms. They’ll find a combination of treatments that relieves your symptoms and gets you back to your regular activities as soon as possible.

Talk to your provider as soon as you notice any changes in your symptoms, especially if they’re getting worse quickly.

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