A joint is an area in the body where two or more bones come together. Most joints are flexible, enabling you to move. Arthritis is a broad term that describes more than 100 conditions that cause inflammation and degeneration of the joints.
May is Arthritis Awareness Month, so let’s learn all about arthritis.
Two common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
OA, or “wear and tear” arthritis, is more common with age. Most people over age 60 have osteoarthritis to some degree. But younger people can develop this type of arthritis as well, particularly following an injury to a joint.
RA occurs when your immune system, which normally attacks outside invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and toxins, doesn’t work properly and attacks your healthy tissue. RA affects your joints and bones but may also affect your internal organs and systems. RA typically develops between ages 30 to 50. It can, however, affect children, teens and young adults.
Other types include psoriatic arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and gout. Psoriatic arthritis is joint inflammation that occurs in people who have the skin disorder psoriasis. JIA, in which the immune system attacks the tissue around joints, affects children ages 16 or younger. With gout, hard crystals of uric acid form in your joints.
Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 58.5 million adults are affected by arthritis. That’s about one in four Americans. The most common joints affected by arthritis are the feet, hands, hips, knees and lower back facet joints, which connect the bones of the spine.
Symptoms of arthritis include pain and decreased range of motion in the affected joints. Inflammation within the joints leads to stiffness, swelling, redness, tenderness and warmth. RA may also cause fatigue, low-grade fever, inflammation of the heart and blood vessels and a low red blood cell count (anemia).
Different types of arthritis have different causes, many of them unknown. Certain genes have been identified in some types of arthritis, such as RA and JIA. People with OA may have inherited a cartilage weakness. If you have the gene, it’s likely that something in your environment triggers the condition to develop. For example, repeated injuries to a joint may lead to OA.
Certain behaviors and characteristics, called risk factors, increase your likelihood for developing some types of arthritis or make it worse. Some of these risk factors you can control and some you can’t. These risk factors include:
• Overweight or obesity. Carrying excess pounds puts stress on your joints, especially your knees, hips and spine.
• Infection. Many microbial agents, such as bacteria and viruses, can infect joints and potentially lead to the development of arthritis.
• Joint injuries. Overuse and repetitive stress can damage joints and lead to the development of OA.
• Smoking. Cigarette smoking can increase your risk for developing RA and make the condition worse.
• Age. The risk for developing arthritis increases as you get older.
• Gender. Most types of arthritis are more common in women.
• Family history. Some types of arthritis run in families. You may be at a higher risk if your parents or siblings have arthritis.
Arthritis is typically diagnosed using your medical history; a physical examination; imaging tests, such as x-ray, MRI, CT scan or ultrasound; and lab tests to analyze your blood and joint fluid for signs of inflammation.
There’s no cure for arthritis. The aim of treatment is to reduce pain, prevent additional damage to the affected joints and improve joint function and quality of life. Treatment may include medication, physical and/or occupational therapy, splints or joint assistive aids, patient education and support, and weight loss.
If conservative measures don’t help, surgery such as joint replacement or joint fusion may be necessary.
There’s no sure way to prevent arthritis, but you can lower your risk for developing arthritis by not smoking; doing low-impact, non-weight-bearing exercise; maintaining a healthy weight; and reducing your risk of joint injuries. These activities also help to keep arthritis from getting worse if you do develop it.