An Overview of Arthritis

In This Article

Arthritis is a group of rheumatic diseases and related conditions that have joint inflammation in common. The symptoms associated with arthritis include joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common types, but there are many other forms. The treatment is different depending on the cause, but the goal is to relieve pain and inflammation while maintaining function.

Symptoms

Joint and inflammation symptoms occur in most types of arthritis and rheumatic disease. These include joint pain, stiffness, swelling, limited range of motion, redness, fever, fatigue, malaise, and lumps and bumps.

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.

Causes

The causes and risk factors differ for each of the 100 different forms of arthritis. For most forms, it is believed that there are overlapping factors that increase the risk of developing the condition. Possible causes of arthritis include age- and lifestyle-related wear and tear, infections, injuries, and autoimmune conditions.

One of the greatest misconceptions about arthritis is that it is only a disease of older people. Actually, two-thirds of people with arthritis are under the age of 65, and 1 in every 250 children is affected by some type of arthritis or rheumatic condition.

Broadly, there are four categories of arthritis related to the mechanisms that lead to joint inflammation. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, in which the cartilage that cushions the bones in the joints is destroyed. This is often related to age, overuse, or injury.

Inflammatory arthritis is an autoimmune process where your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints and other tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are the most common forms. Genetics and environmental factors may play a role in developing these conditions.

Metabolic problems in clearing uric acid from the body cause gout. Infection in a joint can also lead to arthritis.

Diagnosis

An early, accurate diagnosis and early treatment are essential for arthritis, especially inflammatory types of arthritis. A single symptom or test result is not enough to diagnose a specific type of arthritis, so an array of tests are done. You might also have more than one type of rheumatic disease at the same time. Diagnostic tests include physical examination, medical history, symptoms, blood tests, and imaging studies.

The blood tests look for measures of inflammation and for antibodies that are seen in autoimmune types of arthritis. X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are analyzed for typical patterns of joint involvement seen in different types of arthritis. Joint fluid aspiration and analysis might be done to rule out other causes or identify some types of arthritis, such as gout.

For certain types of systemic rheumatic diseases, biopsies of organs can provide important diagnostic information.

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.

Treatment

There is no cure for most types of arthritis, so the focus is slowing the progression of the disease, protecting the joints from damage, controlling pain and other symptoms, and preserving function. The exception is the infectious type of arthritis where the underlying infection can be cured. Work with your doctor to find the best combination of over-the-counter products, prescription medications, and things you can do at home. In some cases, surgery (such as joint replacement) is an option.

Over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications are used to manage symptoms, including joint pain and swelling. Corticosteroids, either oral or injected into the joint, might be used to calm inflammation.

For inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are used aggressively early after diagnosis. Biologic response modifiers (biologics) may be used if DMARDs are not effective. These help restore the ability of the immune system to fight disease.

Joint replacement surgery is used if conservative measures haven't worked and the condition is having an impact on your daily activities.

Getting exercise, losing excess weight, reducing stress, and eating a nutritious diet are helpful in maintaining function.

Coping

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.

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.

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.

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