What is arthritis?
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis. Other common rheumatic conditions related to arthritis include gout, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Rheumatic conditions tend to involve pain, ache, stiffness, and swelling in and around one or more joints. Symptoms can develop gradually or suddenly. Certain rheumatic conditions can also affect the immune system and various internal organs of the body. Some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus (SLE), can affect multiple organs and cause widespread symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 54.4 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis. Of these, 23.7 million people have their activity restricted in some way due to their condition. Arthritis is more common among adults age 65 and older, but it can affect people of all ages, including children.
What are the symptoms of arthritis?
Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are the most common symptoms of arthritis. Your range of motion may also decrease, and you may experience redness of the skin around the joint. Many people with arthritis notice that their symptoms worsen in the morning.
In the case of RA, you may feel tired or experience a loss of appetite due to inflammation caused by the activity of the immune system. You may also become anemic, which means that your red blood cell count drops, or you may have a mild fever. Severe RA can cause joint deformity if left untreated.
What causes arthritis?
Cartilage is firm but flexible connective tissue in your joints. Protects the joints by absorbing the pressure and shock created when you move and stress them. A reduction in the normal amount of this cartilage tissue causes some forms of arthritis. Normal wear and tear causes OA, one of the most common forms of arthritis. An infection or joint injury can exacerbate this natural breakdown of cartilage tissue. Your risk of developing OA may be higher if you have a family history of the disease.
Another common form of arthritis, RA, is an autoimmune disorder. It occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the body’s tissues. These attacks affect the synovial membrane, a soft tissue in the joints that produces a fluid that nourishes the cartilage and lubricates the joints.
RA is a disease of the synovial membrane that will invade and destroy a joint. Eventually it can lead to destruction of both bone and cartilage within the joint. The exact cause of attacks by the immune system is unknown. But scientists have discovered genetic markers that increase your risk of developing RA fivefold.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
Visiting your primary care doctor is a good first step if you are not sure who to see for an arthritis diagnosis. They will perform a physical exam to check for fluid around the joints, hot or red joints, and limited range of motion in the joints. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist if necessary.
If you experience severe symptoms, you may choose to schedule an appointment with a rheumatologist first. This can lead to faster diagnosis and treatment.
Removing and analyzing the levels of inflammation in the blood and joint fluids can help your doctor determine what type of arthritis you have. Blood tests that check for specific types of antibodies such as anti-CCP (anticyclic citrullinated peptide), RF (rheumatoid factor), and ANA (antinuclear antibody) are also common diagnostic tests.
Imaging doctors, such as x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, are often used by doctors to produce an image of the bones and cartilage. This is so they can rule out other causes of their symptoms, such as bone spurs.
How is arthritis treated?
The main goal of treatment is to reduce the amount of pain you experience and avoid further joint damage. You will learn what works best for you in terms of pain control. Heating pads and ice packs are relaxing by some people. Others use mobility aids, such as canes or walkers, to help relieve pressure on sore joints.
Improving your joint function is also important. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of treatment methods to achieve the best results.
Several different types of medications treat arthritis:
- Pain relievers, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), are effective in controlling pain, but they do not help decrease inflammation.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and salicylates, help control pain and inflammation. Salicylates can thin the blood, so they should be used with great caution with additional anticoagulant medications.
- Menthol or capsaicin creams block the transmission of pain signals from the joints.
Immunosuppressants like prednisone or cortisone help reduce inflammation.
If you have RA, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which suppress your immune system. There are also many medications to treat OA available over the counter or by prescription.
Surgery to replace your joint with an artificial one may be an option. This form of surgery is most often done to replace hips and knees.
If your arthritis is more severe in your fingers or wrists, your doctor may perform a joint fusion. In this procedure, the ends of the bones come together until they heal and become one.
Physical therapy that involves exercises that help strengthen the muscles around the affected joint is a central component of arthritis treatment.
What lifestyle changes can help people with arthritis?
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight reduce the risk of developing OA and may reduce symptoms if you already have it. Eating a healthy diet is important to lose weight. Choosing a diet with lots of antioxidants, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, can help reduce inflammation. Other inflammation-reducing foods include fish and nuts.
Foods to minimize or avoid if you have arthritis include fried foods, processed foods, dairy products, and high meat consumption. Some research also suggests that antibodies to gluten may be present in people with RA. A gluten-free diet can improve symptoms and disease progression. A 2015 study also recommends a gluten-free diet for all people who are diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease.
Regular exercise will keep your joints flexible. Swimming is often a good form of exercise for people with arthritis because it doesn’t put pressure on the joints like running and walking do. Staying active is important, but you also need to make sure you rest when you need to and avoid trying too hard.
Exercises at home that you can try include:
- Head tilt, neck rotation and other exercises to relieve neck pain
- Finger curls and thumb curls to relieve pain in the hands
- leg lift, hamstring stretches and other easy exercises for knee arthritis
What is the long-term prognosis for people with arthritis?
While there is no cure for arthritis, proper treatment can greatly reduce its symptoms. In addition to the treatments your doctor recommends, you can make a number of lifestyle changes that can help you manage your arthritis.