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HomeHealth A-Z Arthritis
Arthritis
Arthritis
Arthritis treatment focuses on lessening the effects of the disease, minimizing pain, and increasing joint mobility and strength.

Arthritis

(ahr-THREYE-tis)
 

Definition of Arthritis

Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. It is a general term referring to more than 100 different types of arthritis.

Description of Arthritis

Arthritis is not just one disease, but a complex disorder that encompasses more than 100 forms with different causes, risk factors, treatments, and differing effects on the body. All forms of arthritis are characterized by joint inflammation that can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and sometimes a change in the structure of the joint. Arthritis can also affect the supporting structures around the joints including muscles, tendons, ligaments, as well as the protective covering of internal organs.

More than twenty million people suffer from arthritis in the US. Arthritis affects both men and women, children and adults. When all the many forms of arthritis are grouped together, it is the most common chronic illness and the leading cause of disability in the US.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA), accounting for approximately seventy-five percent of arthritis patients. Other types are rheumatoid arthritis (RA), gout (one of the most painful types of arthritis), Ankylosing Spondylitis, juvenile arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and lupus arthritis.

Causes and Risk Factors of Arthritis

The causes and risk factors of arthritis vary depending on the form of arthritis. Some of the varying risk factors are age, injury, trauma, infection, abnormal metabolism, and heredity. For some patients, the causes are unclear.

The exact cause of osteoarthritis (OA) the most common form of arthritis is not known, but it is often thought to develop due to physical stress received from an injury or repetitive movement. OA involves the wearing away of the cartilage that cushions the bones between joints and helps the joint move smoothly and easily. Sometimes when the joint is used there is a crunching feeling or the sound of bone grinding against bone (called crepitus). OA usually develops slowly from wear and tear and can develop in any joint, although it is most often seen in the fingers, knees, hips, and spine. Other factors that may increase the risk of developing OA are age, obesity, female gender, joint misalignment, and heredity.

Another major form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis in which the body's immune system attacks the joints. This causes inflammation of the synovial membrane (the substance that protects and lubricates the joints) resulting in hot, painful swelling and usually joint erosion and deformity over time. Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men, affects all races equally, most often starts between the ages of forty and sixty, and may be influenced by genetics.

Symptoms of Arthritis

The symptoms of arthritis include pain, inflammation, and stiffness in the joints that lasts for more than two weeks, especially if the stiffness in the joints occurs after extended periods of inactivity such as sleeping or sitting, or if there is pain or discomfort in a joint that was injured in the past. People with arthritis usually experience loss of movement and function as the disease progresses.

When the symptoms include joints that feel hot, red, and tender, these are symptoms that are more closely associated with rheumatoid arthritis rather than osteoarthritis.

Many forms of arthritis can also cause symptoms other than joint problems, including fever, gland swelling, fatigue, weight loss, and problems with the lungs, heart, or kidneys.

Diagnosis of Arthritis

If you are experiencing symptoms of arthritis, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. It is important to find out if you have arthritis and if you do, what type. Getting an early and accurate diagnosis can help prevent irreversible damage and disability and can help to minimize pain. Several visits may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis. Your family doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist, a doctor that specializes in treating arthritis.

During your medical appointment, your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine your general health and examine your joints. Also expect questions about your symptoms such as how long and how often you have had pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints and about any previous injuries to the joints. Tests that help to confirm a diagnosis and determine the severity of joint damage include viewing the joints with X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Depending on the symptoms and type of arthritis, it may also be necessary for blood tests, urine tests, or joint aspiration (when fluid surrounding the joint is withdrawn with a needle and examined).

Treatment of Arthritis

Because arthritis patients are usually faced with daily pain and disability from the disease and its complications, treatment for arthritis focuses on lessening the effects of the disease, minimizing pain, and increasing joint mobility and strength. Arthritis is a lifelong disease, although it sometimes goes into periods of remission.

The recommended treatment for arthritis patients will vary between patients and types of arthritis. Your doctor will work with you to determine the best options for you based on your exact condition and diagnosis. Treatment options include exercise, rest, physical therapy, heat/cold compresses, medications, and surgery.

Prevention of Arthritis

Arthritis may not be possible to prevent, but there are some lifestyle choices that may help reduce the risk or slow down the progression of developing the disease and help prevent permanent joint damage. These choices include maintaining a healthy weight (to minimize the strain on your joints), exercising (strong muscles are better able to protect and support the joints), eating a healthy diet (good nutrition helps to strengthen bones and muscles), and proper lifting and posture (to protect muscles and joints).

External Resources

Arthritis Foundation

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

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