What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is pain and inflammation in the joints. It is not a single disease. When you say "arthritis," you could be referring to any of over 100 types of arthritis. Though it effects mostly women and is more common in older patients, it can hit all ages, sexes, and races.

More than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. It is the #1 cause of disability in America.

Arthritis Symptoms

The more common symptoms are swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Its course can be unpredictable in that symptoms may come and go. The disease may stay the same for years, or may worsen over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities, and make it difficult to walk or climb stairs. In some cases, you can see the changes, such as knots on the fingers. In other cases, the changes are only seen on x-ray. Some types of arthritis also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys, skin, as well as the joints.

Different Types of Arthritis

Degenerative arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. This is when the cartilage wears away and you are left with the pain, swelling and stiffness of bone-on-bone. The joint can lose strength and become chronically painful. Risk factors are excess weight, family history, age, and previous injury.

When it is mild to moderate, osteoarthritis treatment can include:

  • Balancing activity with rest.
  • Using hot and cold therapies.
  • Regular physical activity.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Strengthening the muscles around the joint for added support.
  • Using assistive devices.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines.
  • Avoiding excessive repetitive movements.

If the joint damage is severe, it may be necessary to have joint replacement.

Inflammatory arthritis. The immune system can go awry and mistakenly attack the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion and possible damage to internal organs, eyes, and other parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of inflammatory arthritis.

With autoimmune and inflammatory types of arthritis, early diagnosis and aggressive treatment is critical to slow disease activity and help minimize or prevent permanent joint damage. Remission is the goal and may be achieved through the use of one or more medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function, and prevent further joint damage.

Infectious Arthritis. Bacteria, virus, or fungus can enter a joint and trigger inflammation. Examples of organisms that can infect joints are salmonella and shigella (food poisoning or contamination), chlamydia and gonorrhea (sexually transmitted diseases), and hepatitis C (a blood-to-blood infection often through shared needles or transfusions). In many cases, timely treatment with antibiotics may clear the joint infection, but sometimes the arthritis becomes chronic.

Metabolic Arthritis. Uric acid is formed as the body breaks down purines, a substance found in human cells and in many foods. Some people have high levels of uric acid because they naturally produce more than is needed or the body can’t get rid of the uric acid quickly enough. In some people the uric acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joint, resulting in sudden spikes of extreme joint pain, called gout. Gout can come and go; however, if uric acid levels aren’t reduced, it can become chronic, causing ongoing pain and disability.

Diagnosing Arthritis

Your medical professional would begin with a physical exam, blood work, and imaging studies to determine the type of arthritis. In certain cases, a rheumatologist may be involved to manage ongoing treatment for inflammatory arthritis, gout, and other complicated cases.

Arthritis is a commonly misunderstood disease. As with any disease, early detection and treatment are key to managing the illness and living the fullest possible life.

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