Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is an autoimmune disease closely associated with the skin condition psoriasis. It causes the immune system to attack the joints and skin, causing pain, and irritation, among other limitations. If you suspect you may be suffering from PsA, it's important to diagnose and treat it as early as possible to avoid permanent joint damage and maximize your quality of life with this chronic disease. 

So, how can you tell if you’re in the early stages of psoriatic arthritis? In this article, we'll explore what psoriatic arthritis is, who it affects, and how to know if you’re experiencing potential symptoms. 

woman in early stages of psoriatic arthritis

What is psoriatic arthritis?

Psoriatic arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects some people with psoriasis. It causes inflammation in the joints and entheses, or the area where tendons and ligaments connect to bone. It causes joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, and can lead to other joint damage over time. It’s often associated with comorbidities, such as other autoimmune diseases or obesity. The signs and symptoms of PsA can be mild or severe — and can worsen over time without the right treatment.

What are the early signs of psoriatic arthritis? 

The way psoriatic arthritis shows up for one person may look completely different than the next. According to the National Arthritis Foundation, the most common symptoms include: 

  • Joint pain and stiffness. Pain is often worse in the morning or after periods of inactivity. 

  • Swollen fingers and toes. The swelling can cause warmth and tenderness in the joints or cause a sausage-like appearance (dactylitis).

  • Fatigue: Many people with PsA experience fatigue as a result of the condition itself and from chronic pain and inflammation.

  • Eye inflammation: Redness or pain in the eye (uveitis) or vision problems can occur.

  • Nail changes. You may notice separation from the nailbed, pitting (small dents or depressions in the nails), thickening, or discoloration.

  • Limited range of motion. Having trouble with daily activities can be an early sign of psoriatic arthritis.

Having psoriasis is a risk factor, but not everyone with the skiing condition will develop PsA. If you have psoriasis and notice worsened skin lesions, this may not be an indication of being in the early stages of psoriatic arthritis. Talk to a healthcare provider about your symptoms to determine the best course of action. 

Untreated psoriatic arthritis can cause metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It can also lead to worsened health problems, such as: 

  • Lung problems, such as shortness of breath or coughing

  • Damage to blood vessels and heart muscle

  • Osteoporosis

  • Stomach problems, bloating, or diarrhea

  • Damage to cartilage, causing worsened mobility 

woman in early stages of psoriatic arthritis massaging her hand

How is psoriatic arthritis diagnosed?

There isn’t a single test to diagnose PsA. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting screened. Your doctor may run blood tests, X-rays, or an MRI in addition to doing a physical exam. A health history is also important in diagnosing PsA — be prepared to tell your doctor about any other health conditions you’ve had and the severity, type, and duration of your symptoms. 

Psoriatic arthritis can run in the family, so find out if any family members have been diagnosed with PsA or psoriasis. Consider taking a self-screening test and bringing the results to your doctor. If you get diagnosed with PsA, a rheumatologist, or a doctor who specializes in the immune system and arthritis, can help you get the appropriate treatment. 

Risk factors

Psoriatic arthritis can show up at any age, even affecting children, but it most commonly develops between ages 30-50. It affects men and women equally. The exact cause of PsA isn’t fully known, making it hard to prevent the disease from developing. Not everyone with the common risk factors will develop PsA. 

Some of the common risk factors include: 

  • Psoriasis. One in three people with psoriasis will develop PsA. It commonly shows up 10 years after psoriasis symptoms start.

  • Comorbidities. If you have a history of other autoimmune diseases (such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis) or obesity, you may be at a higher risk for PsA.

  • Family history. There is a genetic component to PsA, and having a family member with the disease can increase your risk.

Getting treatment

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There is no cure for PsA, but a rheumatologist can help you find a treatment that reduces the worsening of symptoms and makes it more manageable to live with. Treatment goals are centered around stopping the progression of the disease, keeping your joints mobile, reducing inflammation, and relieving pain. 

Your treatment plan depends on the severity of the disease and symptoms. Common medical treatment includes NSAIDs, corticosteroids, or antiinflammatory drugs for rheumatic disease. 

woman in early stages of psoriatic arthritis rubbing her shoulder

What to do if you’re in the early stages of psoriatic arthritis

If you think you may be in the early stages of psoriatic arthritis, make note of your symptoms and any other relevant health history. Talk to your primary care provider about getting evaluated for PsA. They can refer you to a rheumatologist with specialized experience in treating this chronic condition. The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can get effective treatment and improve your quality of life. 

Being told you have a chronic disease is life-changing, and it can impact all areas of your life. Learn more about how autoimmune diseases affect fertility — and what you can do about it — at Rescripted, the leading global media platform for women’s health and fertility. 

*Medical Disclaimer: The content in this article is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure any health conditions. It’s not a substitute for professional medical advice or consultation. Talk to your doctor before making changes to your healthcare regimen.

Alexa Davidson is a registered nurse and freelance health writer. She’s written for various women’s health companies, covering topics like natural hormone balance, fertility, and disease prevention. On her own fertility journey, Alexa has experienced profound loss and is passionate about supporting others with similar experiences. When she’s not researching or writing, Alexa can be found in the kitchen, where her specialty is making healthy versions of comfort foods. Nashville Hot Tofu, anyone?