Arthritis - The Basic Facts

Information You Need to Know

Arthritis is inflammatory joint disease, and there are more than 100 different types of arthritis affecting people of all ages, including about 300,000 children. Most types of arthritis are chronic—meaning they are long-term illnesses that cause recurrent or persistent effects. Arthritis can usually be managed to reduce the symptoms of pain, joint swelling, and limitations of movement. Some treatments also slow the progression of joint damage.

It's estimated that 67 million (25%) adults, 18 years or older, will have doctor-diagnosed arthritis by the year 2030. Arthritis and other rheumatic conditions are the most common cause of disability among U.S. adults and have been for the past 15 years.

Senior woman having physical therapy.
skynesher / Getty Images

Symptoms of Arthritis

While there are diverse causes of arthritis, the symptoms have some common features.

Common signs of arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Difficulty moving one or more joints (limited range of motion)

Sometimes joint deformity can develop as well, which further limits movement, and can increase the risk of injuries.

Common Form of Arthritis

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, sometimes referred to as wear-and-tear arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis affects more than 27 million people in the United States.

Osteoarthritis is usually related to aging, and joint injury or obesity can contribute to the development and worsening of osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Is an Autoimmune Disease

Rheumatoid arthritis is another common form of arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.5 million adults in the United States.

In rheumatoid arthritis, a person's own immune system attacks cells within its own joint capsule. Chronic inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis destroys cartilage, bone, and ligaments, leading to possible deformity and disability. There can also be systemic effects associated with severe cases of rheumatoid arthritis.

What Is the Treatment for Arthritis?

There is no cure for arthritis. There are various treatment options that can help with managing pain and reducing the risk of permanent joint deformity and disability. Early diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment plan are recognized as important factors in getting arthritis under control.

Treatment can include physical therapy, regularly scheduled medication to prevent symptoms, and short-term treatment for flare-ups.

Arthritis Medications

Depending on your individual symptoms and examination, you might begin with an over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Conservative treatments include aspirin, Tylenol, or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

If you have an inflammatory type of arthritis you might be prescribed methotrexate or Arava (leflunomide). Methotrexate, Arava, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine are among a class of drugs known as DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs).

And a class of drugs known as biologics can also be prescribed to control symptoms of severe cases of arthritis.

Steroids such as prednisone may be prescribed during a flare of inflammatory arthritis. Because of their potential for side effects when used long-term, these medications are prescribed at the lowest dose possible and for the shortest duration possible.

How Arthritis Is Diagnosed

If you are having symptoms of joint pain, swelling, or issues with moving your joints, see a healthcare provider.

In addition to asking you about your symptoms and risk factors, your healthcare provider will do a physical examination and may order laboratory tests and x-rays. Laboratory tests can measure inflammatory markers, and imaging tests may visualize signs of inflammation, joint damage, or erosions.

Your primary care doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist if your arthritis is severe or difficult to manage. Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialize in arthritis and arthritis-related diseases.

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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.