What is arthritis in the legs?

Arthritis in the legs may affect the hips, knees, ankles or feet.
Arthritis in the legs may affect the hips, knees, ankles, or feet.

The term arthritis refers to redness and swelling of the joints characterized by joint pain and stiffness. A joint is an area where two bones meet. The two bones at the site of the joint are separated by a cushioning tissue called the cartilage that protects the joint and facilitates proper movement. The joint space is lined by the synovial membrane that secretes a fluid called synovial fluid. Synovial fluid lubricates and protects the joints to allow for adequate movement. Arthritis may result when any of the joint structures are damaged. Leg arthritis affects the joints of the hips, knees, ankles, or feet. There are over 100 types of arthritis. The most common types of arthritis affecting the legs are 

  • Osteoarthritis: This is the most common type of arthritis. It occurs due to wear and tear of the joint cartilage that happens with increasing age.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: In this type of arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks and damages the joints.
  • Gout: This occurs due to excessive deposition of uric acid crystals in the joints, which causes joint inflammation.
  • Septic arthritis: This refers to arthritis that occurs as a result of joint infection.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis: This type of arthritis results because of injury or after a surgery or other invasive procedure on the joint.
  • Psoriatic arthritis: People who suffer from a long-term skin condition, psoriasis, may develop psoriatic arthritis along with the skin manifestations such as plaques.

What are the early signs of arthritis in the legs?

The early signs and symptoms of arthritis in the lower limbs may vary depending upon several factors such as

  • The type of arthritis
  • The joint affected
  • The extent of joint involvement

The early signs and symptoms of arthritis in the legs include

  • Pain in the affected area
  • Swelling at the affected site
  • Stiffness in the affected joints, which may be worse in the morning
  • Decreased range of motion of the affected joint
  • Difficulty walking 
  • The skin over the affected joint may appear red and inflamed
  • Loss of function of the involved joint or muscle
  • Loss of muscle mass at the affected site
  • Presence of small, bony bump-like swellings 
  • The skin over the affected joint may be warm to the touch
  • Psoriatic arthritis (pitted toenails and skin plaques)
  • Deformities in the affected leg, ankle, or foot
  • Fever (if the arthritis is due to an infection)
  • A grating sensation inside the joint with movement

How do doctors diagnose arthritis in the legs?

Diagnosis of leg arthritis by a doctor may involve the following

  • Detailed medical history: This may involve questions about the symptoms including their onset and severity, any underlying health conditions, any history of injury or surgery, and family history of any related health conditions. The doctor may also ask if you are on any medications or supplements.
  • Physical examination: A thorough physical examination will be done to look for the following:
    • Joint swelling
    • Presence of any rashes or skin changes
    • Nail changes
    • Deformities
    • Range of motion
    • Signs of arthritis in any other part of the body
    • Weakness of the affected joint and muscles
    • Tenderness
    • Any signs of injuries or trauma
    • Gait (the manner of walking)
    • Temperature
  • Imaging studies: These are crucial because they help the doctor to see the condition of the involved bones, joint spaces, and muscles. Imaging studies such as X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done.
  • Blood tests: These may be done especially in the case of rheumatoid arthritis. Blood tests may also help the doctor know about the presence of infections or nutrient deficiencies that may contribute to the disease. Associated health conditions such as high serum uric acid levels (as seen in gout) and increased blood sugar levels (as seen in diabetes) may be identified through blood tests.
  • Synovial fluid examination: This involves withdrawing a small amount of synovial fluid and examining it in the lab. This may reveal the presence of septic arthritis (joint space infection) or the presence of gout (uric acid crystals).


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Medically Reviewed on 2/16/2022
Medscape Medical Reference

University of Michigan Medicine. <https://www.uofmhealth.org/conditions-treatments/cmc/foot-and-ankle/arthritis-ankle>.

Versus Arthritis. <https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/conditions/arthritis/>.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. <https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-knee>.