An Overview of Arthritis

Most people think that arthritis is a single disease. It's not. As a matter of fact, arthritis is not even a disease—the term describes a symptom that is shared by a group of diseases and conditions. Arthritis literally means "joint inflammation."

"Arthritis" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a group of rheumatic diseases and related conditions. Joint inflammation is the symptom that is common to the conditions that fall under the umbrella of arthritis. Other symptoms commonly associated with arthritis include joint pain, joint stiffness, and joint swelling.

The difference between a normal and inflamed joint in arthritis.

While joint symptoms are considered the primary characteristic of arthritis, certain rheumatic diseases may affect parts of the body other than the joints. For example, connective tissue (found in tendons, muscles, or skin) can be affected. Certain rheumatic conditions may also affect internal organs. The extra-articular manifestations and systemic effects may result in debilitating or even life-threatening complications.

Top 7 Things to Know About Arthritis

1) It's Not a Single Disease

While it is said that there are over 100 types of arthritis and rheumatic diseases, just a handful of those are prevalent and well-known. Many rheumatic diseases are quite rare.

The CDC estimates that one in five U.S. adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis. It has been projected that as the population ages, the number of people with doctor-diagnosed arthritis will soar to 67 million by the year 2030.

2) Anyone Can Develop Arthritis, Even Children

One of the greatest misconceptions about arthritis is that it is only a disease of older people. Not true. Actually, two-thirds of people with arthritis are under the age of 65.

Anyone can develop arthritis—even children. According to the CDC, one in every 250 children is affected by some type of arthritis or rheumatic condition. Statistics indicate that across every age group, more women develop arthritis than men. This is true of many, but not all, types of arthritis or rheumatic disease.

3) Arthritis Is the Nation's Leading Cause of Disability

According to the CDC, arthritis limits the activities of 22.7 million Americans. Among adults with arthritis, six million are limited in social activities, eight million have difficulty climbing stairs, and 11 million have difficulty walking short distances. For one of three adults of working age (18-65 years), arthritis can limit the type or amount of work they are able to do—or whether they can work at all.

4) No Cure for Most Types of Arthritis

There is no cure for most types of arthritis. An exception to that statement would be infectious types of arthritis where the underlying infection can be cured with antibiotics. But, inflammatory types of arthritis and degenerative types of arthritis, as well as other rheumatic conditions, are incurable, chronic diseases. Many people confuse remission with cure—it's not the same. Until there is a cure, the goal must be to live well with arthritis by managing it.

5) Early Diagnosis and Appropriate Treatment Are Essential

When you experience warning signs or early symptoms of arthritis, it's common to suspect an injury before you suspect arthritis. But, you shouldn't waste too much time hoping it goes away on its own or self-treating the suspected injury. It is important to be evaluated by a doctor. An early, accurate diagnosis and early treatment are essential for arthritis, especially inflammatory types of arthritis.

6) A Rheumatologist Is a Specialist in Arthritis and Related Conditions

Typically, people who experience early signs of arthritis consult with their primary care physician or family physician. That may be appropriate for the first round of diagnostic testing. However, you may be referred to a rheumatologist for more in-depth evaluation and ongoing care. A rheumatologist is a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases.

7) A Sampling of the Various Types of Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It is also known as degenerative joint disease and results from wear and tear on the joint. Cartilage damage develops, which can lead to decreased joint function. Usually, osteoarthritis onset is subtle and gradual, involving one ( monoarthritis) or only a few joints. The joints most often affected are the knees, hips, hands, and spine. The risk of developing osteoarthritis increases with age. Other risk factors for osteoarthritis include joint injury, obesity, and repetitive use of the joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease which occurs when the body's own immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium (cell lining inside the joint). Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory type of arthritis which is potentially disabling. It usually affects several joints (polyarthritis) in a symmetric pattern and can also have systemic effects.

Psoriatic arthritis is an inflammatory type of arthritis associated with psoriasis (a skin condition characterized by red, patchy, raised or scaly areas). The symptoms of psoriasis and arthritis often develop separately, possibly years apart. In 85 percent of people with psoriatic arthritis, symptoms of psoriasis precede arthritis symptoms.

Fibromyalgia syndrome is a painful condition characterized by muscle pain, chronic fatigue, and poor sleep. Fibromyalgia is a type of soft tissue or muscular rheumatism and does not cause joint deformities.

Gout is a painful type of arthritis that causes sudden, severe attacks of pain, tenderness, redness, warmth, and swelling in the joints, especially the big toe. The pain and swelling associated with gout are caused by uric acid crystals that precipitate out of the blood and are deposited in the joint.

Pseudogout, which is also known as calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate deposition disease (CPPD), is caused by deposits of calcium phosphate crystals (not uric acid) in the joints. CPPD is often mistaken for gouty arthritis. Since CPPD is a different disease than gout, treatment is not the same.

Scleroderma is a disease of the body's connective tissue that causes thickening and hardening of the skin. It can also affect the joints, blood vessels, and internal organs.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that can involve the skin, kidneys, blood vessels, joints, nervous system, heart, other internal organs. Symptoms vary, but may include skin rash, arthritis, fever, anemia, fatigue, hair loss, mouth ulcers, and kidney problems. Symptoms usually appear in women of childbearing age, but can occur in children or older people. About 90 percent of people affected are women.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve at the wrist, which causes tingling and numbness in the fingers. It can begin suddenly or gradually and can be associated with other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis—or it may be unrelated to other disorders.

Ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the spine, can cause the vertebrae to fuse, producing a rigid spine. Other joints, besides the spine, may become involved. The exact cause is still unknown, but most people with spondylitis have a genetic marker, known as HLA-B27. Having this genetic marker does not guarantee that a person will develop spondylitis, but people with the marker have a greater risk. Ankylosing spondylitis usually affects men between the ages of 16 and 35, but it can also affect women.

Infectious arthritis is a form of joint inflammation caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Diagnosis is made by culturing the organism from the joint.

Lyme disease is a serious tick-borne disorder. Lyme disease can affect the joints, nervous system, heart, skin, and eyes.

Sjogren's syndrome is characterized by dysfunction of the moisture-producing glands causing dryness of the mouth and eyes. Other parts of the body may also be affected, resulting in a wide range of symptoms.

If You’re Recently Diagnosed With Arthritis

If you have been recently diagnosed with a specific type of arthritis, you likely don't know much about it or what to expect going forward. Only If you know someone with arthritis will you have some idea. The most difficult aspect to grasp may be that there is an uncertainty and unpredictability that comes with the diagnosis of one of the types of arthritis. Even the pain is variable.

There are three things you will need: a rheumatologist you trust; to learn about your type of arthritis; and the realization that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Finding the best treatment for you will require some degree of trial and error.

Living With Arthritis

Learning to live with arthritis is challenging. The goals are obvious: to maintain physical ability by slowing disease progression; to stave off physical limitations and functional limitations as much as possible; to adjust to inevitable changes brought on by the disease; and to accept your new reality.

The impact of arthritis on your life largely depends on disease severity. Those with mild disease will face fewer challenges and difficulties than those with severe arthritis. A moderate to severe disease course may greatly impact your ability to perform usual activities of daily living and it may test your emotions as you move farther from what you once considered to be normalcy. You may need help with certain tasks or to change how you use to do things. At some point, you may need mobility aids or to use assistive devices.

In most cases, the changes take place gradually and you are able to adapt. There are some bigger decisions involved too, such as can you continue working, can and should you have a baby, when should you apply for disability?

While formulating a treatment plan to manage the physical aspects is the first priority after you are diagnosed, you will learn over time to cope with how arthritis impacts your life. Healthy habits, including compliance with your treatment plan, eating and sleeping well, avoiding stress, regular exercise, and maintaining your ideal weight, will help you live well with arthritis.

It is also important to remember that arthritis does not only impact the person who has the disease. In some ways, both big and small, your disease impacts family and friends close to you. Its effect can be far reaching.

A Word From Verywell

The arthritis journey will surely test your patience. Arthritis, depending on the severity, can be very intrusive. It can be life-changing. It can stir negative emotions within you. You must always fight back. Fight to maintain the highest quality of life possible. Fight to stay positive. Fight to accept the things that have changed because of arthritis. At Verywell, we will provide you with information to help ensure your fight is a healthy one.

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