Article | October 2019

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Arthritis

Dealing with joint pain.

Arthritis—the leading cause of disability among adults in the U.S.—is not a single disease; it’s an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. By conservative estimates, about 54 million adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and it’s more common in women (26 percent) than in men (18 percent).

The risk of arthritis increases with age: Over one-third of adults in the U.S. with arthritis are 65 years or older.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions.

Common types are:

  • Osteoarthritis (or degenerative): associated with cartilage wearing down, resulting in bone on bone joint movement
  • Rheumatoid (or inflammatory): immune system attacks joints with uncontrolled inflammation
  • Infectious: bacteria or a virus enters the joint and triggers inflammation
  • Lupus: immune system attacks tissues and organs
  • Fibromyalgia: pain in muscles and soft tissues
  • Gout: uric acid builds up to cause intense pain

Causes

A combination of family history and physical activity can lead to different forms of arthritis.

Risk factors also include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a history of joint injuries or serious infections
  • Working in a job that requires repetitive motions

Symptoms

Arthritis causes joint pain, stiffness, and/or swelling. These symptoms can feel mild, ongoing, or intense and surging. Arthritis can also cause other problems that may seem unrelated, like fatigue or a rash.

Diagnosis and screenings

Diagnosing arthritis is difficult, given so many different types and possible symptoms. If you feel joint symptoms, you should see a doctor to check them out. Your primary care doctor will examine you for some of the more common forms of arthritis, and may refer you to a rheumatologist or an orthopedist.

A rheumatologist is an arthritis specialist, and will do a comprehensive assessment of your joints. An orthopedist is a joint specialist, and will evaluate the physical or mechanical causes of your joint pain to determine if you need surgery, like a knee or hip replacement.

You can also expect some tests. X-rays are the most frequent method to see joints. Your doctors may also use ultrasound or MRIs, which can identify structural issues, cartilage loss, soft tissue tears, or bone fragments. You may also need a blood test to check your levels of inflammation, the presence of antibodies to fight infection, and how your liver and kidneys are functioning.

Treatment

Your doctor will probably recommend some things you can do at home, such as using heat and cold to soothe pain, resting the joint regularly, and protecting it from strain and overuse.

Arthritis cannot be cured, but early detection and treatment may help improve your quality of life.

You can delay the most damaging effects if you:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Follow a moderate daily exercise plan
  • Avoid activities that could lead to injury
  • Protect joints from repetitive overuse

Treatment choices also vary depending on the type of arthritis you have. Most options focus on controlling pain and minimizing joint damage.

You may need:

  • Medication
  • Physical or occupational therapy
  • Braces, splints, or other joint protection aids
  • Weight loss
  • Alternative care, such as acupuncture
  • Surgery

More Information

For more facts about arthritis, check out the Arthritis Foundation website.

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