Arthritis is a common problem, affecting about 58 million people in the US alone. Arthritis is usually characterized by pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints, but it can lead to many other symptoms and affect other bodily systems as well.
What many people need to learn about arthritis is that this term does not refer to a single condition. Another rarely acknowledged fact about arthritis is that it can often be more than a joint disease. To learn more about what arthritis really is and what it can affect, keep reading.
The term “arthritis” can refer to joint pain, stiffness and swelling. It is also a name for a group of over 100 conditions that affect mainly the joints. In the past, these conditions were often called rheumatism. But rheumatism is also a general term that describes pain in the bones, muscles and joints.
Arthritis happens when joint cartilage — the joint’s protective layer that provides cushioning — becomes damaged or wears away. This results in painful friction and swelling of the joints. While there are many types of arthritis, the most common ones are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the leading form of arthritis, affecting 19% of US adults over 45. This condition is due to simple “wear and tear” of the joints that happens with aging, overuse, injury or obesity. Nearly 80% of osteoarthritis cases that cause disability affect the knee joints. However, it can affect other weight-bearing joints like the hips and spine. It is a chronic condition that gets progressively worse without treatment.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system doesn’t work as it should and attacks the lining of the joints, called the synovium. It results in inflammation and damage to the affected joints. It often affects the smaller joints in the hands but can affect any. The same joint on each side of the body is usually affected simultaneously. Besides joints, RA can also affect other tissues of the body.
Other less common forms of arthritis and related disorders include gout, ankylosing spondylitis, lupus and scleroderma.
Arthritis can affect nearly anyone of any age. Even children and teenagers can develop arthritis. And while these conditions are more common as we age, it’s a common misconception that arthritis is a normal part of aging. Ignoring symptoms of arthritis will only lead to the condition getting worse, potentially causing disability and increasing your risk of falls and fractures.
Firstly, arthritis affects the health of your joints. Wearing away the cartilage that protects the joints causes swelling, inflammation, pain and stiffness.
Specific forms of arthritis can even cause damage beyond the joints and affect the eyes, lungs, heart, blood vessels and digestive tract. For example, it can lead to dry eyes that damage the cornea, or it can lead to atherosclerosis due to chronic inflammation. RA and lupus are examples of two conditions known for affecting more than just the joints.
Secondly, arthritis affects your quality of life. About one in four arthritis patients say they experience severe pain, while half of those affected have persistent pain. As you know, being in severe and constant pain makes it difficult or impossible to function. That’s why arthritis is considered a disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The condition can make it impossible to work and take care of yourself.
Thirdly, arthritis has an impact on a person’s mental health and well-being as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 58 million people living with arthritis, 10 million have symptoms of anxiety and depression. Pain, chronic inflammation and impact on one’s ability to function are some reasons why so many arthritis patients also have mental health problems on top of their primary condition.
The good news is that arthritis can be treated. While there is currently no cure for any form of arthritis, there are treatments that control symptoms and slow down disease progression. Treatment depends on the type of arthritis, its severity, as well as your age and health:
Your doctor may prescribe general analgesics and strong nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for short-term pain relief. Hot and cold compresses, massage therapy, joint immobilization and nerve stimulation can also help with the pain.
Your doctor will also prescribe drugs that slow disease progression and reduce symptoms over time. These include corticosteroids and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to reduce or slow inflammation.
Knowing how to care for yourself when you have arthritis helps prevent injury and makes the disease easier to live with. Lifestyle changes that are helpful for arthritis patients include weight loss if overweight, some forms of light exercise (e.g., swimming and pilates), knowing when to rest and the use of assistive devices such as a cane.
When other forms of treatment fail, patients may need surgery to prevent irreversible damage to their joints or to help them function. There are many different types of surgery performed on arthritis patients. Some remove inflamed tissues surrounding the joints, others fuse bones to prevent joint friction, and some replace damaged joints with prosthetics.
Arthritis is a common and debilitating problem that must be appropriately diagnosed and treated before it affects your quality of life. Many patients dealing with arthritis pain ignore their symptoms for far too long, causing irreversible damage to their joints. With timely management, you can stop this disease from progressing. But if you have already tried medication and conservative treatments without much success, surgery can help you get back your life.
The Orthopaedic Institute of Ohio and the Institute for Orthopaedic Surgery offer many choices for arthritis patients. Our state-of-the-art facility includes everything necessary for diagnosing arthritis, occupational and physical therapists and some of the state’s most experienced surgeons. To learn more about arthritis and its management, contact our office today at 419-222-6622.