Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. It can affect one joint or multiple joints. Two of the most common types are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
The symptoms of arthritis usually develop over time, but they may also appear suddenly. Arthritis is most commonly seen in adults over the age of 65, but it can also develop in children, teens, and younger adults. Arthritis is more common in women than men and in people who are overweight.
Causes of arthritis
An infection or injury to the joints can exacerbate this natural breakdown of cartilage tissue. Your risk of developing osteoarthritis may be higher if you have a family history of the disease. Another common form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, is an autoimmune disorder. It occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the tissues of the body.
Arthritis affects millions of adults and the disease can be debilitating and painful. Even though arthritis is not preventable, a greater understanding of the disease can help you find the steps to modify and lessen its impact.
Symptoms of arthritis
Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are the most common symptoms of arthritis. Your range of motion may also decrease, and you may experience redness of the skin around the joint. Many people with arthritis notice their symptoms are worse in the morning.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, you may feel tired or experience a loss of appetite due to the inflammation the immune system’s activity causes. You may also become anemic as your red blood cell count decreases or you may have a slight fever. Severe rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint deformity if left untreated.
How arthritis is diagnosed
Seeing your doctor is a good first step if you are unsure who to see for an arthritis diagnosis. He or she will perform a physical exam to check for fluid around the joints, warm or red joints, and limited range of motion in the joints. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist if needed.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms, you may choose to schedule an appointment with a rheumatologist first. This may lead to faster diagnosis and treatment.
Extracting and analyzing inflammation levels in your blood and joint fluids can help your doctor determine what kind of arthritis you have.
Blood tests that check for specific types of antibodies like anti-CCP (anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide), RF (rheumatoid factor), and ANA (antinuclear antibody) are also common diagnostic tests.
Doctors commonly use imaging scans such as X-ray, MRI, and CT scans to produce an image of your bones and cartilage. This is so they can rule out other causes of your symptoms, such as bone spurs.
How arthritis is treated
The main goal of treatment is to reduce the amount of pain you are experiencing and prevent additional damage to the joints. You will learn what works best for you in terms of controlling pain. Some people find heating pads and ice packs to be soothing. Others use mobility assistance devices, like canes or walkers, to help take pressure off sore joints.
Improving your joint function is also important. Your doctor may prescribe you a combination of treatment methods to achieve the best results.
A number of different types of medication treat arthritis:
Analgesics, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), are effective for pain management, but don’t help decrease inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and salicylates, help control pain and inflammation.
Menthol creams block the transmission of pain signals from your joints.
Immunosuppressants like prednisone or cortisone help reduce inflammation. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may put you on corticosteroids or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, which suppress your immune system.
Surgery to replace your joint with an artificial one may be an option. This form of surgery is most commonly performed to replace hips and knees. If your arthritis is most severe in your fingers or wrists, your doctor may perform a joint fusion. In this procedure, the ends of your bones are locked together until they heal and become one.
Physical therapy involving exercises that help strengthen the muscles around the affected joint is a core component of arthritis treatment.
Lifestyle changes that can help people with arthritis
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight reduce the risk of developing osteoarthritis and can reduce symptoms if you already have it.
Eating a healthy diet is important for weight loss. Choosing a diet with lots of antioxidants, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, can help reduce inflammation. Other inflammation-reducing foods include fish and nuts.
Foods to minimize or avoid if you have arthritis include fried foods, processed foods, dairy products, and high intakes of meat.
Regular exercise will keep your joints flexible. Swimming is often a good form of exercise for people with arthritis because it doesn’t put pressure on your joints the way running and walking do. Staying active is important, but you should also be sure to rest when you need to and avoid overexerting yourself.
Things you should know about arthritis
Arthritis is painful. It causes chronic pain as well as swelling and stiffness and loss of motion. Flare-ups can be unpredictable.
Osteoarthritis may also affect your hips, knees, back and even your shoulders. The pain can limit your everyday activities, even the ability to work.
There is no cure but early diagnosis and treatment is essential. The first step in osteoarthritis treatment is to manage your pain, followed by gaining strength through physical therapy and making other lifestyle modifications such as maintaining a healthy body weight and smoking cessation. Surgery is another option, which is especially effective for hip and knee patients.
Movement is good. People who remain active are far better off than those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. This can be challenging when you are in pain, but it doesn’t take much. Aquatic exercise, a short bike ride or walking every day can be enough.
Weather makes a difference. The climate may contribute to your pain. When the atmospheric pressure changes, your arthritis might flare up. That’s a good time to use ibuprofen, apply ice and begin stretching for relief from the cold weather.
Relief can be hot or cold. If your joints are aching, apply a covered ice pack to decrease the initial inflammation and then, after 48 hours, switch to heat to open up the blood vessels for added relief.
Young adults with knee injuries have six times the risk of developing osteoarthritis in that joint by age 65. Those with hip injuries are three times more likely. But the importance of exercise at any age far outweighs the chance of injury. It is not just for adults. Children suffer from arthritis, too. Juvenile arthritis is difficult to diagnose. As with osteoarthritis in adults, there is no screening for juvenile arthritis.
Symptoms may include constant joint pain or swelling, unexplained skin rashes, a fever with swelling of the lymph nodes or inflammation of other organs in the body. Be sure to share your child’s symptoms with your pediatrician.