What Is Arthritis?

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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 always to relieve pain and inflammation while maintaining function.

Arthritis 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 other parts of the body. For example, connective tissue (found in tendons, muscles, and 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.


The causes and risk factors for each of the 100 different forms of arthritis differ. For most forms, it is believed that there are overlapping factors that increase the risk of developing the condition.

Broadly, arthritis types can be broken into four categories related to the mechanisms that lead to joint inflammation:

  • Degenerative arthritis: 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 arthritis: Problems clearing uric acid from the body can cause gout.
  • Infectious (septic) arthritis: When bacteria or a virus infects the fluid surrounding a joint or the joint itself, arthritis (localized to that joint) can result.

One of the greatest misconceptions about arthritis is that it is an "older person's disease." 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.


An early, accurate diagnosis and early treatment are essential for arthritis, especially inflammatory types of arthritis. This process may begin with your primary care physician, but you may be referred to a rheumatologist for more in-depth evaluation.

A single symptom or test result is not enough to diagnose a specific type of arthritis, so your doctor will perform a physical examination, consider your medical history and symptoms, and run an array of 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.

Other tests may be done to rule out other possible causes for your symptoms, diagnose comorbidities (even a co-occurring rheumatic disease), and/or identify specific types of arthritis, such as gout.


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. Examples of treatment and management options include:

  • Over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications
  • Corticosteroids, either oral or injected into the joint
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Biologic response modifiers (biologics)
  • Weight loss
  • Exercise
  • Stress reduction
  • Healthy eating

In some cases, surgery (such as joint replacement) may be considered, though generally only after other measures have failed.


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. You may (now or eventually) 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.

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.

While formulating a treatment plan to manage the physical aspects is the first priority after you are diagnosed, don't forget to consider strategies that can help you cope as well. In most cases, the changes take place gradually and you are able to adapt.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arthritis limits the activities of 22.7 million Americans. Among adults with arthritis, 6 million are limited in social activities, 8 million have difficulty climbing stairs, and 11 million have difficulty walking short distances.

For one of three adults of working age (18 to 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. And the disease, depending on the severity, can be life-changing. Do what you can to maintain the highest quality of life possible and to stay positive. This begins with investing in your health and maintaining an open line of communication with your healthcare team.

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