Arthritis is a condition marked by inflammation of the joints. When a person has arthritis, the tissues that surround joints and other connective tissue become swollen. It is common to feel pain, soreness and stiffness in the hands, knees or shoulders, although arthritis can affect any part of the body. Arthritis is most often a chronic condition treated with a combination of medicine and lifestyle changes.
What Causes Arthritis?
The chances of getting arthritis increase with age. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed; 60 percent of arthritis sufferers are women. According to the Centers for Disease Control, genetics factor into certain types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis. The role of lifestyle and environment, along with genetic factors, is being studied by scientists to determine the impact they have on the development of arthritis.
Types of Arthritis
Arthritis is a term used today to refer to many types of diseases and conditions that affect the joints. According to the CDC, more than 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions affect joints, all of which vary in nature and severity. The most common types of arthritis in the U.S. are osteoarthritis, gout, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, with osteoarthritis being the most common type. In fact, osteoarthritis affects 27 million Americans age 25 and older and is a leading cause of disability.
Most people who develop osteoarthritis develop it later in life and commonly feel its effects in their fingers, knees and hips. According to the American College of Rheumatology, 70 percent of people older than 70 show evidence of the disease in X-rays, although only half ever develop symptoms. While osteoarthritis is most often a disease of older individuals, it's not uncommon for it to develop as a result of an injury that occurred earlier in a person's life, such as from a car accident or sports injury. Excess weight, which adds stress to joints, can be a factor as well.
Gout is one form of arthritis that is more common in men than in women. It is the result of elevated uric acid that builds up in the blood and causes red, hot, swollen and stiff joints that become extremely painful. Gout is typically experienced first in the big toe, but it can be felt in the ankles, heels, knees, wrists, fingers and elbows.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes extreme joint swelling, stiffness and pain, usually in the hands and feet, which often leads to a loss of function. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the arthritis is a result of the body's immune system attacking the body's tissues. As a result, it can spread beyond joints and affect internal organs and bones. This illness affects more women than men and usually strikes between the ages of 25 and 55.
The causes of rheumatoid arthritis are unknown, although a genetic component is suspected. Hormones and environment may play a role as well. Doctors can slow and sometimes stop damage to the joints and help patients manage the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis through medicine, lifestyle changes and surgery.
Symptoms of Arthritis
The different types of arthritis cause a range of symptoms. However, joint pain and stiffness generally are indicators of an arthritic condition. These symptoms can make it increasingly difficult for a person to move in ways he or she once did. Symptoms of arthritis can come on suddenly or develop over time. They also can come and go, but usually they persist over time, as arthritis is typically a chronic condition. Some types of arthritis affect other parts of the body, causing symptoms such as fever, fatigue, weight loss and difficulty breathing.
A physician likely will take a complete medical history and conduct a physical examination, which will include X-rays of the bones and joints. Blood work may help determine the type of arthritis and rule out other diseases.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, treatment focuses on controlling the pain, minimizing the damage to joints and maintaining function and quality of life. To accomplish these goals, the college recommends:
- Drug therapy
- Nonpharmacologic therapies/supplements
- Physical or occupational therapy
- Splints or joint assistive aids
- Patient education and support
- Weight loss
Self-management can help control the symptoms associated with arthritis. Maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce pain and slow the progression of arthritis. Incorporating a regular exercise program into daily life will help improve muscle strength. Generally keeping active may help reduce joint stiffness. The Arthritis Foundation Self-Help Program offers effective instructions for helping people learn how to care for themselves.
American College of Rheumatology. "Osteoarthritis" (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
Arthritis Foundation. "Arthritis Self Management: What You Need to Know" Aug 17, 2017.
MedlinePlus. "Gout." U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
MedlinePlus. "Rheumatoid Arthritis." U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "Arthritis Basics" (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Do I Have Arthritis?" April 2017.