Did you know that arthritis is the number one cause of disability in the United States? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the condition affects nearly 60 million people in the U.S. each year, or about 24% of the population.
With over 100 types of arthritis and related conditions, the causes and symptoms can vary from person to person. But what everyone with arthritis has in common is joint pain.
Maybe your hands hurt sometimes when the weather changes. Or perhaps your joints are stiff when you wake up in the morning. Learning more about arthritis can help you recognize the symptoms and find the right care to help manage it and improve your quality of life.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis refers to soreness, and often inflammation (swelling), in one or more joints. Joints are the places where your bones connect together and move. When someone has arthritis, those joints can become painful, and in some cases, swollen.
Arthritis is often mistaken for its own standalone disease, but it’s really a joint condition with many different causes. There are two main categories of arthritis: noninflammatory arthritis (which is the case for osteoarthritis) and inflammatory arthritis (usually related to a rheumatological condition). We’ll explain more about the types below.
The primary symptoms of arthritis are joint pain, stiffness, swelling and decreased range of motion. These symptoms can vary from mild to severe and might be constantly present or come and go.
Arthritis tends to affect women more than men, and it’s often associated with aging as our joints experience more wear and tear. But it affects people of all ages because it can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions, including sports injuries and autoimmune disorders which lead the body’s immune system to attack its own healthy joints (rheumatoid arthritis).
Types of arthritis
Experts believe arthritis can have nearly 100 different causes, and more is being learned about them over time. Here are some of the most common types of arthritis:
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting about 80% of adults over the age of 55. It’s sometimes known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) or wear-and-tear arthritis because it happens when the cartilage in your joints breaks down.
Our bones have cartilage on the ends, serving as a cushion to help them move smoothly and avoid the friction of rubbing together. When someone has osteoarthritis, the cartilage in their joints has worn down. Without that layer of protection, the bones can grind together painfully. Cartilage itself has no nerves, but the bones underneath have lots of nerves, which cause the joint pain.
Osteoarthritis can be caused by typical wearing as you age, injuries to joints that damage the cartilage, and repetitive motions in your work or daily activities that put force on your joints. It can affect a variety of different joints in the body, but it usually happens with the ones you use the most, like your hands, wrists, shoulders, knees or feet. (That also means it’s a little different for everyone.)
Osteoarthritis can be treated by a primary care doctor, an orthopedic specialist or a physical therapist through medication, cortisone injections, physical therapy and, in some cases, surgery.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune rheumatic disease. These diseases cause one’s immune cells to attack and damage the body’s own healthy joint tissues, leading to pain, swelling and stiffness. Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects the hands, wrists and knees, making everyday tasks like writing or taking stairs difficult. If left untreated, it can damage other organs and systems, including your heart, lungs and eyes.
With this form of arthritis, it’s important to see a rheumatology specialist. They can help you understand the diagnosis and create a personalized treatment plan to improve symptoms and protect your health long-term.
Psoriatic arthritis is connected to psoriasis, a chronic skin condition that causes uncomfortable red patches, often with a silvery scale-like layer on top. Most people will experience the skin symptoms of psoriasis long before developing psoriatic arthritis, which causes the joint pain, swelling and stiffness of similar arthritis conditions.
There’s no cure for psoriatic arthritis, but people often experience periods of flare ups and remission. It’s typically treated by a rheumatologist with a combination of medication, and physical and occupational therapies. If left untreated, psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis can be debilitating, so it’s important to continue care with a rheumatologist and often a dermatologist.
Gout is a condition caused by high levels of uric acid in your bloodstream. Uric acid is a waste product left behind when your body breaks down chemicals called purines. It usually dissolves, but when you eat foods that are high in purines over time, urate crystals collect in your joints. This can lead to intense pain and swelling.
Uric acid crystal deposition and gout are more likely in people with obesity, those on diuretics, and those with poor kidney function. Gout flare-ups usually happen suddenly. Rheumatologists use medications as the main treatment and can also help prevent future gout attacks.
Also called pediatric rheumatic disease, juvenile arthritis (JA) is a term that describes a number of autoimmune or autoinflammatory diseases affecting children under 16. Similar to the effects of rheumatoid arthritis, this condition causes the immune system to release inflammatory chemicals that damage healthy tissues, including joints. Although JA can be a life-long disease, it’s possible to experience periods of remission or to have it completely resolve.
Treated by rheumatologists in partnership with a child’s pediatrician, the usual treatment for JA includes a combination of medication, lifestyle modifications, and sometimes integrative therapies like acupuncture.
Where is arthritis most common in the body?
One question people often have is, Where is arthritis most common in the body? The answer is that there isn’t one specific area that’s the most commonly affected. If you have arthritis, it typically affects more than one joint. But it’s true that the joints we use the most in our daily lives can be the most noticeably affected by pain or stiffness. Those joints typically include our knees, hands, wrists, feet, ankles, hips and shoulders.
Is arthritis hereditary?
Research and genetic studies show that arthritis can be hereditary, especially if your parent or someone in your close family has osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. It’s important to note that even if you’ve inherited those genes, not everyone will develop an arthritic condition or experience the same symptoms.
It’s just as common for arthritis to develop outside of genetic causes. It can happen as a result of the normal aging process, wear and tear from repeated stress on a joint, your unique anatomy, and a variety of other factors. Your doctor will look at your health history, symptoms and any imaging or examination findings to provide a diagnosis and help you understand the most likely cause.
Is arthritis always a chronic (long-term) condition?
No, arthritis isn’t always a chronic condition. For example, if it’s caused by an underlying illness that resolves, then arthritis symptoms may go away along with it.
But unfortunately, it’s much more common for arthritis to be a long-term condition that people need to manage with ongoing treatments, like medication and lifestyle changes. This is especially true in the case of osteoarthritis, the most common type. When you have wear and tear on your joints and the cartilage has degenerated, the cartilage cannot grow back. But variables such as your age, weight and history of joint injuries can determine the severity of the condition over time.
Long-term effects of untreated arthritis
The long-term effects of arthritis highly depend on the type, or cause. For moderate arthritis associated with joint wear and tear, treatment may not be needed. You can make lifestyle adjustments to make your daily activities more comfortable. For example, if you have sore knees, you might change your usual exercise plan to taking a walk rather than using the stair climber machine at the gym. Non-weight bearing exercise like biking and water aerobics can allow supportive muscle strengthening without worsening joint pain in weight-bearing joints like hips, knees, ankles and feet.
However, when autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are left untreated, you can face more serious health risks, including deformed joints, permanently injured joints, and even damage to other organs and systems throughout the body. For that reason, it’s important to talk with your doctor about any symptoms you notice and learn what’s causing them.
Think you might have arthritis? Talk to your doctor
A little joint soreness here and there can be normal as we go through our lives. But if you’re experiencing recurring pain in your joints, whether it’s sudden or increasing as you age, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.
Primary care doctors can listen to you about your symptoms, look at your health history and help you understand what you’re experiencing. Depending on the diagnosis, they may suggest treatments that can help, or recommend that you see a rheumatologist or an orthopedist for more specialized care.