Arthritis is very common but is not well understood. Actually, “arthritis” is not a single disease; it is an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. People of all ages, sexes, and races can and do have arthritis, and it is the leading cause of disability in America. More than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. It is most common among women and occurs more frequently as people get older.
Common joint symptoms include swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased the range of motion. Symptoms may come and go. They can be mild, moderate or severe. They may stay about the same for years but may progress or get worse over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities and make it difficult to walk or climb stairs. Arthritis can cause permanent joint changes. These changes may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the damage can only be seen on X-ray. Some types also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys, and skin as well as the joints.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. When the cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away, bone rubs against bone, causing pain, swelling and stiffness. Over time, joints can lose strength and pain may become chronic. Risk factors include excess weight, family history, age and previous injury (an anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tear, for example).
When the joint symptoms of osteoarthritis are mild or moderate, they can be managed by:
- 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 (OTC) pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines
- avoiding excessive repetitive movements
A healthy immune system is protective. It generates internal inflammation to get rid of the infection and prevent disease. But the immune system can go awry, mistakenly attacking the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion and may damage internal organs, eyes and other parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of inflammatory arthritis. Researchers believe that a combination of genetics and environmental factors can trigger autoimmunity. Smoking is an example of an environmental risk factor that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people with certain genes.
With autoimmune and inflammatory types of arthritis, early diagnosis and aggressive treatment are critical. Slowing disease activity can help minimize or even 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.
A bacterium, virus or fungus can enter the joint and trigger inflammation.
In some people the uric acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joint, resulting in sudden spikes of extreme joint pain, or a gout attack.