General Arthritis

Arthritis and joint inflammation affect more than 70 million people in the United States, or one in three people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Arthritis is a rheumatic disease that causes inflammation and loss of function of one or more connecting or supporting structures, which leads to pain, burning, redness or swelling in these areas. Rheumatic diseases usually affect joints, tendons, ligaments, bone and muscles, but some conditions, such as lupus, can also affect internal organs.

Symptoms

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, each with its own set of symptoms. These are some more commons symptoms of arthritis:

  • Swelling in one or more joints

  • Stiffness around the joints that lasts for at least one hour in the early morning

  • Constant or recurring pain or tenderness in one or more joints

  • Difficulty using or moving a joint normally

  • Warmth, burning and redness in a joint

Individuals with arthritis experience pain, fatigue and other symptoms that can affect their daily lives. Arthritis that impairs just one joint can change the daily activities of a person in an effort to reduce further damage or to lessen the pain. People may not be able to attend to their favorite activities, which can in turn affect the overall well-being of a person. Early diagnosis and timely treatment are crucial in preserving quality of life.

Who Gets Arthritis?

About 70 million people in the United States live with arthritis or arthritis-related conditions. While the incidence of arthritis goes up with age, it is a myth that arthritis is an old person’s disease. Many arthritis sufferers - about one in five - are under the age of 44, and as many as 300,000 children have a form of arthritis called juvenile arthritis. Generally, rheumatic diseases are the leading cause of disability among people aged 65 and older. According to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention women are more likely than men (37.3 percent of women vs. 28.4 percent of men) to have arthritis. Caucasians (35.3) and African Americans (31.5) are more likely to have arthritis than Hispanics (23.3) and other ethnic groups. Researchers have identified several risk factors for developing arthritis. For example, osteoarthritis is often blamed on genes that cause weakness in the cartilage. 

Diagnosis

Diagnosing arthritis is tricky because many of the signs and symptoms mimic those of other common diseases. If your family physician suspects you could have arthritis even remotely, you may consider seeing a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in arthritis and related conditions. Before making a final diagnosis, a doctor will review the patient’s medical history, conduct a physical examination, and order a series of laboratory tests and X-rays. The doctor may ask the patients all or most of the following:

  • Is the pain in one or more joints?

  • When does the pain occur?

  • How long does the pain last?

  • When did you first notice the pain?

  • What were you doing when you first noticed the pain?

  • Does activity make the pain better or worse?

  • Have you had any illnesses or accidents that may account for the pain?

  • Is there a family history of any arthritis or other rheumatic disease?

  • What medicine(s) are you taking?

Because some arthritic conditions, such as lupus, may affect other organs, a complete physical examination that includes the heart, lungs, abdomen, nervous system, eyes, ears, and throat may be necessary.

Treatment

Treatments vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the condition. Treatment may include some or all of the following: rest and relaxation, exercise, change in diet and medications.

    Rest and exercise
    It is crucial to find a balance between rest and physical activity. Too much rest will cause stiff joints, but too much exercise may lead to overexertion and do further damage. Generally, regular and moderate exercise is best for people with arthritis. Stretching and flexibility training are especially beneficial. Low-impact cardio and weight training should not be shunned if the person is in good overall health. Again, a doctor or a physical therapist should be consulted before beginning any training regimen.

    Diet
    A balanced diet is important. Weight control is essential since extra weight can put more stress on a person’s joints. Increased intake of calcium and vitamin C and vitamin D can help increase bone mass and ward off the harmful effects of oxidation.

    Medications
    A variety of medications are used to treat rheumatic diseases. The type of medication depends on the specific condition and on the individual patient. The medications used to treat most rheumatic diseases are not a cure, but rather help reduce symptoms and control the negative effects of the disease. In some cases, the medication may slow the course of the disease and prevent further damage to joints or other parts of the body. The doctor may delay using medications until a definitive diagnosis is made because medications can hide important symptoms, such as fever and swelling, and thus interfere with diagnosis. Medications normally used for arthritic conditions include:

    • Analgesics (or pain relievers) and anti-inflammatory drugs
    • Depending on the type of arthritis, a doctor could prescribe a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD). This category includes several unrelated medications that are intended to slow or prevent damage to the joint and thereby prevent disability and discomfort.
    • Biological-response modifiers are a new class of drugs used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. They can help reduce inflammation and structural damage of the joints by blocking the reaction to a substance called tumor necrosis factor, a protein involved in immune-system response.

    Pain relief
    There are other methods to help ease pain around the joints, such as heat and cold therapy. Applying heat increases blood flow and flexibility. Soaking in a warm bath or swimming in a heated pool generally are quite effective. Conversely, cold therapy numbs the nerves around the joint, decreasing the pain and, possibly, some of the inflammation. Applying ice packs or over-the-counter sprays that cool and soothe joints will help with the pain.

    Alternative therapy
    Some people with arthritis look to alternative methods to help cure their pain. Alternatives such as herbal remedies, lotions, oils, special diets and chemicals are some things that people use to help their arthritis. However, many of these methods are neither scientifically proven nor tested and may even have serious side effects. It is important to talk to a doctor before undergoing any alternative treatments.