What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a musculoskeletal disorder that targets joints specifically. Often it includes a degradation of cartilage and soft tissue that causes bones to rub together. This leads to pain, swelling, and irritation. Chronic irritation can lead to deformity, weakness, and instability.

Arthritis is a blanket term that applies to many types of diseases affecting 46 million adults and 300,000 children in America, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Arthritis can have a devastating impact on a person's everyday life. Pain, irritation, and weakness can lead to mobility issues affecting walking, climbing stairs, typing, fine motor control with hands, and others. While arthritis often targets joints, it is a systemic disorder that can attack all areas of the body.

Causes of Arthritis:

There is no one specific cause of arthritis; usually a combination of several factors results in an individual developing the disease.  Risk factors for developing arthritis include:

  • Genetics
  • Age
  • Excess body weight
  • Previous injury
  • High intensity participation in sports with repetitive motions
  • Illness or infection
  • Occupational hazards

Types of Arthritis:

Arthritis can be broken down in to several different categories:

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease in which the cartilage between two joints is damaged or worn away. This leads to pain and mobility loss as the bones rub together. This is the most common type of arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis describes inflamed joint linings, which is reflective of an autoimmune disease. This is a serious and disabling form of the disease. It typically affects more women than men.

Gout is an imbalance in a body's chemistry. Often the smaller joints such as fingers and toes are impacted the most; however, this is a largely treatable disorder.

Ankylosing spondylitis is a specific form of arthritis that affects the spine.

Juvenile arthritis is a general term for all arthritis that occurs before age 18.

Systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis is an autoimmune disorder; symptoms typically appear prior to age 16.   The body's immune system views the joints as foreign tissue and turns its defenses on them, causing inflammation in one or more areas.  The arthritis maybe accompanied by (or preceded by) a high daily fever, lasting at least 2 weeks or more.  Patients may also exhibit a skin rash, or have an enlarged liver, spleen, or lymph nodes.

Lupus is a serious form of arthritis that leads to joint inflammation, pain, and degradation of connective tissue. See our Lupus page for more information.

Scleroderma is arthritis that targets connective tissue and often results in a hardening of the skin.

Fibromyalgia causes pain in all areas of the body, and is largely diagnosed in women.  For more information on fibromyalgia, please visit our fibromyalgia page.

Symptoms of Arthritis:

The symptoms of arthritis often include joint stiffness, pain, aches, inflammation, and swelling. Different types of arthritis attack different areas of the body; arthritis is typically diagnosed more frequently in women than in men. Arthritis can interfere with everyday activity and general comfort levels.

It is important to report symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible, to better ascertain a diagnosis and begin treatment.

Arthritis Diagnosis:

Arthritis can be diagnosed by a doctor who will first perform a physical examination and take an inventory of medical history and symptoms.  During the exam, the doctor will look for inflammation and deformity of the joints, weakness of muscle, tenderness to touch, and mobility restrictions.

Tests can also be performed to aid in diagnosis of arthritis, which may include blood, urine, x-ray, and joint fluid.

Arthritis Treatments:

There are many ways to treat arthritis. Currently, the following are recommended:

  • Medication such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs, COX-2 Inhibitors, Salicylates, and other drugs that target inflammation reduction and pain management
  • Meditation
  • Diet changes
  • Alternative therapies
  • Surgery
  • Physical activity (especially pool therapy)
  • Physical therapy

Long-term treatment is possible for those who suffer from arthritis. In many cases, a person can continue to perform their typical duties and activities with the assistance of medication and exercises. Surgery can also drastically improve a person's long-term prognosis to clean up damaged cartilage.

Myths About Arthritis:

The Arthritis Foundation also provides a set of myths associated with arthritis:

Arthritis is just aches and pains:  The most common myth surrounding arthritis is that it just affects old people.  While it's true that as you get older, your body may begin to ache and hurt, arthritis is not only seen in the elderly, but can occur at any age. Some elderly people never develop arthritis, and some arthritis patients are diagnosed in childhood. Arthritis can be categorized by symptom group and where it is localized.

Arthritis isn't really a serious health problem: Arthritis is the most common chronic condition that costs Americans billions of dollars every year. In intangible costs, there is loss of movement, mood and self-esteem issues, feelings of burden, and other issues associated with this disorder.

Tips for Living with Arthritis:

  • Pay attention to symptoms. If symptoms last more than a couple of weeks, it's time to consult a professional.
  • Talk to your doctor; make sure you know the specific type of arthritis you have. Learn about your condition, and discuss treatment options and arthritis management tips with your doctor.
  • Start treatment early.  As with most conditions, the sooner you start treatment, the better.
  • Protect yourself by limiting the stress you put on your joints.  If you need adaptive/assistive products to help limit that stress, get them.  From cooking utensils to ergonomic chairs, chances are there is a device out there to help where you need it most.
  • Exercise.  In addition to the overall general health benefits, exercise also increases range of movement.  Added weight adds stress to joints, so exercise can help maintain healthy weight.  Exercising in water also reduces stress on joints.
  • Music has been shown to lift mood. Make a "mix tape" of your happy music.
  • Laugh. A lot.  It really is the best medicine.
  • Eat a healthy diet.  Vitamin C and folic acid have been shown to be beneficial to those who suffer from arthritis.  In addition, calcium and Vitamin D can help strengthen bones and joints.
  • Play it safe in the sun. Not only can overexposure to the sun cause sunburn and contribute to skin cancer, it can cause flare-ups in those with lupus.
  • Proper footwear can reduce stress on joints.  That doesn't mean you have to toss the high heels entirely, though.  Look for comfort lines of mid-heel shoes that are specifically designed for comfort.
  • Take a warm bath. Warmth can help relieve pain, and a good hot bath can help relax you and help you get a good night's sleep.
  • Work smarter. Look into your options regarding telecommuting, flexible hours, part-time work.  Find out if your company offers ergonomic workspace testing.  Maybe changing the chair in your cubicle or where you put your screen can help alleviate some of the stress.
  • Keep a journal to help you track and cope with your emotions or changes in pain levels.
  • Stretch!  It improves flexibility.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Rheumatoid Arthritis




How to Help A Friend With a Chronic Illness

Additional Resources:

 Arthritis.org is an organization that provides information about arthritis, arthritis treatments, advocacy and education for patients, families, and professionals.  It also has a section with information about juvenile arthritis.

American Chronic Pain Association provides education information on pain-related conditions, treatments, awareness, and pain management tools.

Scleroderma Foundation is a national non-profit organization that provides education, support, and funds for research into the causes of, and cure for, scleroderma.

Spondylitis Association of America is a national non-profit organization providing education, support, and resources for those affected by spondylitis.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) provides an educational handout on osteoarthritis and an informational packet for patients and families living with arthritis.

Juvenile Arthritis Resources

KidsHealth provides information for parents about a range of children's health issues, including juvenile arthritis.

The website for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has an extensive section on juvenile arthritis.