Family Health: Arthritis not just 1 disease

Arthritis is very common, and it’s easy to think of it as a single disease. But there are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions, affecting one in five adults in the U.S. That jumps to one in two for people ages 65 or older.

For people who have arthritis, these statistics are probably less important than the symptoms. Painful, stiff, inflamed joints can keep you from doing the activities you love, as well as the ordinary tasks that get you through the day. In fact, the term arthritis refers more to these symptoms than the disease. The various types of arthritis, including some that begin in other body systems, all have at least some aspect of joint pain. They range from uncommon disorders such as Lyme disease to more common ones such as gout and carpal tunnel syndrome.

When people complain of having aches and pains from arthritis, though, they are most likely talking about one of the two most common types – osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Wear and tear arthritis

The older you get, the more likely you are to have symptoms of osteoarthritis. It’s also called degenerative arthritis, because it happens when the cartilage at the ends of bones wears away over time.

Cartilage cushions your joints, and losing it leads to pain, swelling and stiffness. Overuse or a previous injury to the joint can raise your risks for osteoarthritis, and so can being overweight. Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, but it’s most common in the hands, knees, hips and spine.

For mild to moderate osteoarthritis, there’s a lot you can do at home. If you’re overweight, try to lose some pounds. According to the Arthritis Foundation, losing just 10 pounds relieves about 40 pounds of pressure from your knees. Exercise can help you lose weight, and it also helps relieve pain by strengthening the muscles around your joints. Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy.

Over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory medicines can sometimes help with osteoarthritis. However, it’s important to take only the correct amount to avoid dangerous side effects. In some cases of osteoarthritis, doctors recommend a steroid injection directly into the joint. Steroids, such as cortisone, are powerful anti-inflammatories and can relieve symptoms for months or years. However, if these injections are used too often they can weaken tissues in the joint area.

For severe osteoarthritis that doesn’t get better with other therapies, your doctor may recommend joint replacement. These procedures today use high-grade materials and computer-assisted methods to achieve the most natural movement possible in the artificial joint. Research shows that for both hip and knee replacement, the new joints have an 80 percent to 85 percent likelihood of lasting at least 20 years.

Auto-immune arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is also most common in older people, but it often starts during middle age. Young adults and children can also get this type of arthritis.

It happens when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, causing painful inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, usually affects hands, wrists, feet and knees first, on both sides of the body. People with RA may also feel very tired and even have a fever.

The exact cause of RA is not known. But the tendency to get it may be inherited, with symptoms starting when they are triggered by something in the person’s lifestyle or environment. For example, according to the Arthritis Foundation, smoking can trigger RA in people with certain genes.

Symptoms of RA may be mild and go away for long periods of time. For some people, though, symptoms are constant, severe and debilitating. In both cases, it’s important to get a diagnosis quickly. Damage from RA increases over time, but there are medicines that can slow the disease process and sometimes put it into remission. The sooner you start these treatments, the more you can limit joint damage from RA.

As with osteoarthritis, losing weight can help alleviate pain by relieving pressure on your joints. It’s important to stay active with RA, and also to get enough rest. Be sure to ask your doctor how much physical activity is right for you, and slow down if exercise causes pain in a new joint. Let your doctor know if the pain doesn’t improve after you stop exercising. If you use over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory medicines, be sure to take them exactly as directed.

Steroid injections into an affected joint are sometimes used for RA. In some cases, joint replacement surgery is the best option for severely damaged joints.

Getting help

Arthritis is the No. 1 cause of disability in the U.S. It can affect your job, your relationships, even your mental health – people with arthritis have high rates of anxiety and depression. If you have symptoms of arthritis, see your doctor. With the right diagnosis, you can start treatments that can minimize its effects on your life. And be sure to keep your friends and family in the loop – they can be your biggest allies in keeping active with arthritis.

For more information on all types of arthritis, visit the Arthritis Foundation at