What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a joint disorder featuring inflammation. A joint is an area of the body where two different bones meet. A joint functions to move the body parts connected by its bones. Arthritis literally means inflammation of one or more joints.Arthritis is frequently accompanied by joint pain. Joint pain is referred to as arthralgia.There are many forms of arthritis (over 100 and growing). The forms range from those related to wear and tear of cartilage (such as osteoarthritis) to those associated with inflammation resulting from an overactive immune system (such as rheumatoid arthritis). Together, the many forms of arthritis make up the most common chronic illness in the United States.

The causes of arthritis depend on the form of arthritis. Causes include injury (leading to osteoarthritis), abnormal metabolism (such as gout and pseudogout), inheritance, infections, and unclear reasons (such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus). Arthritis is classified as one of the rheumatic diseases. These are conditions that are different individual illnesses, with differing features, treatments, complications, and prognosis. They are similar in that they have a tendency to affect the joints, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, tendons, and many have the potential to affect internal body areas.

What are symptoms of arthritis?

Symptoms of arthritis include pain and limited function of joints. Inflammation of the joints from arthritis is characterized by joint stiffness, swelling, redness, and warmth. Tenderness of the inflamed joint can be present. Many of the forms of arthritis, because they are rheumatic diseases, can cause symptoms affecting various organs of the body that do not directly involve the joints. Therefore, symptoms in some patients with certain forms of arthritis can also include fever, gland swelling, weight loss, fatigue, feeling unwell, and even symptoms from abnormalities of organs such as the lungs, heart, or kidneys.

Who is affected by arthritis?

Arthritis sufferers include men and women, children and adults. Approximately 350 million people worldwide have arthritis. Nearly 40 million persons in the United States are affected by arthritis, including over a quarter million children! More than 21 million Americans have osteoarthritis. Approximately 2.1 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. More than half of those with arthritis are under 65 years of age. Nearly 60% of Americans with arthritis are women.

How is arthritis diagnosed and why is a diagnosis important?

The first step in the diagnosis of arthritis is a meeting between the doctor and the patient. The doctor will review the history of symptoms, examine the joints for inflammation and deformity, as well as ask questions about or examine other parts of the body for inflammation or signs of diseases that can affect other body areas. Furthermore, certain blood, urine, joint fluid, and/or x-ray tests might be ordered. The diagnosis will be based on the pattern of symptoms, the distribution of the inflamed joints, and any blood and x-ray findings. Several visits may be necessary before the doctor can be certain of the diagnosis. A doctor with special training in arthritis and related diseases is called a rheumatologist (see below). Many forms of arthritis are more of an annoyance than serious. However, millions of patients suffer daily with pain and disability from arthritis or its complications.

Earlier and accurate diagnosis can help to prevent irreversible damage and disability. Properly guided programs of exercise and rest, medications, physical therapy, and surgery options can idealize long-term outcomes for arthritis patients. It should be noted that both before and especially after the diagnosis of arthritis, communication with the treating doctor is essential for optimal health. This is important from the standpoint of the doctor, so that he/she can be aware of the vagaries of the patient's symptoms as well as their tolerance to and acceptance of treatments. It is important from the standpoint of patients, so that they can be assured that they have an understanding of the diagnosis and how the condition does and might affect them. It is also crucial for the safe use of medications.

Arthritis has been recognized for perhaps thousands of years. Unfortunately, many misconceptions about this chronic condition have been around for almost as long.

How to Care for Yourself

artharrest-logoThink there's nothing you can do about arthritis? Great news! You can act right now. Some of the ideas here are simple, one-time actions. Others are first steps toward longer-term goals. All can directly or indirectly improve your health, outlook or pain level, and can generally make life with arthritis a little easier.

Pay attention to symptoms, see your doctor and get an accurate diagnosis if you have pain, stiffness or swelling in or around a joint for more than two weeks, it's time to see your doctor. These symptoms can develop suddenly or slowly. Only a doctor can tell if it's arthritis. But "you have arthritis" is not a diagnosis. Ask for a specific diagnosis of the type of arthritis you have. There are more than 100 types, each of which has different treatments.

Getting the right treatment requires getting the right diagnosis.

  • Start early - The earlier an accurate diagnosis is made and treatment started the better. Early treatment can often mean less joint damage and less pain. Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments that may include medication, weight management, exercise, use of heat or cold, and methods to protect your joints from further damage. See your doctor for an early diagnosis and immediate treatment plan!
  • Protect your joints - Avoid excess stress on your joints. Use larger or stronger joints to carry things. Assistive devices can make tasks at home and work easier. Staying close to your recommended weight also helps relieve damaging pressure on hips and knees.
  • Get moving - Exercise helps lessen pain; increases range of movement, reduces fatigue and helps you feel better overall. Your doctor, a physical therapist, or other specially trained health professionals can show you range-of-motion exercises and strengthening exercises that are good for arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation also offers water exercise and other classes. Contact your local office for details.
  • Tune in - Listening to your favorite music can lighten your mood and may even help you to forget your pain at least for a little while. Make a tape of your favorite upbeat tunes and listen to it when you need a lift.
  • Pick, pour or peel - If you are looking for a tasty healthy treat, reach for an orange or a tall glass of orange juice. Why? Recent research has shown the importance of vitamin C and other antioxidants in reducing the risk of osteoarthritis and its progression. Another bonus: oranges and other citrus fruits are good sources of folic acid, which can help alleviate the side effects of the arthritis drug methotrexate and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in women who have lupus.

Check out your options

In the past two years, the FDA has approved several drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and other arthritis related diseases. If your current medication isn't working as well as you'd like or if it's causing unacceptable side effects ask your doctor about these new treatment options. Check out the online drug guide and supplement

  • Let yourself go - on vacation, that is. Make yours a good one by remembering to bring extra medication, a spare prescription, insurance card, comfortable shoes, your doctor's phone number and, of course, your camera.
  • Face facts - Learn something new about arthritis. Building an understanding of your disease is an important step in managing it.
  • Play in the dirt - Buy the seeds for three of your favorite veggies or flowers and plant a garden. Digging in the dirt can be therapeutic for sore hands and can yield beautiful and fragrant or delicious and nutritious results.
  • Have a good laugh - Read a book of jokes, rent a funny movie or watch your favorite sit-com or stand-up comedian. Laughing even when you feel like crying from agony can relax muscles, relieve pain and even boost your immune system.
  • Play it safe in the sun - Protect yourself when you go out into the sun wear sunglasses, a hat and sun screen. Some forms of arthritis, as well as certain medications, can leave you more vulnerable to the sun's harmful rays.
  • Do Tell - Take an opportunity to tell someone a co-worker, friend, and family member about arthritis. Start with an interesting fact: Did you know that arthritis affects 46 million people? Then go from there. They'll understand you and the way arthritis affects your life a little better. Or share your feelings with others who have arthritis on the Arthritis Foundation's message boards.
  • Resolve to reduce Lose weight - You won't just look better; you'll feel better, too. Why? Every extra pound you carry around translates to added stress to your knees and hips. Excess weight can mean more pain, no matter which form of arthritis you have. It can also contribute to and aggravate osteoarthritis, while increasing your risk of gout. Learn more in the Exercise Center.
  • Bone up - Stock up on your favorite source of calcium. A diet rich in this important mineral can help decrease your risk of osteoporosis. If you don't like drinking milk or want some variety try consuming more milk products, such as yogurt, cheese and ice cream. Or add powdered milk to puddings, gravies, shakes and other recipes. Other good sources of calcium: broccoli, salmon (with the bones) and kale.
  • Do drugs the right way Take your medication just as your doctor prescribes. If you're tempted to stop because you feel it's not working or you believe it's causing side effects, call your doctor first. It can take weeks or even months for the full benefits of a medication to become apparent, and some side effects ease over time. Stopping a medication abruptly may not only cause you to miss out on its benefits in some cases it can be downright dangerous.
  • Begin with breakfast - Put up the pastry and grab some fruit, fiber (like oatmeal) and a tall glass of water instead of coffee. Like you've always heard, a healthful breakfast is a great way to start the day. Our free brochure on diet and arthritis can tell you more about healthier eating.

Try this on for size

It's time to toss those fashionable, yet oh, so uncomfortable pumps that cramp your toes, rub your heels and squeeze your bunions. A well padded, well fitting shoe with plenty of room for your toes and their imperfections can make a world of difference in the way your feet (and the rest of you) feel.

  • Take a hike - Choose your favorite spots (indoors and out) and make plans to walk them at least once a week. Walking is the ideal exercise for most people with arthritis. It burns calories, strengthens muscles and builds denser bones all without jarring fragile joints.
  • Sit, soak and soothe - A warm bath before bed can relieve muscle tension, ease aching joints and help you get a good night's sleep.
  • Treat your muscles - Find a certified massage therapist and treat yourself to a good rub down. The benefits vary from person to person but may include decreased pain and increased circulation, energy and flexibility. And besides, it just feels good.
  • Work smarter - Do something that will make your job easier check into working flex hours, telecommuting or working part-time. No matter where or when you work, take frequent breaks to stretch stiff joints and sore muscles.
  • Fess up - Be sure to tell your doctor about the medications you're taking, both prescription and over the counter. Don't forget to mention any nutritional supplements you're taking, too. All medications even natural ones have the potential to cause side effects or to react adversely with each other.
  • Write away - Keeping a journal is fun and therapeutic. Best of all, there are no rules. Write about your feelings, fears, frustrations and fun times. Write about things you’d never tell another living soul. Write about anything or nothing in particular. Just write.
  • Stretch your legs - Stretching is a simple way to keep joints and muscles flexible. It relieves stress and can help enable you to maintain your daily activities. Try this to keep your calf muscles strong and flexible: Stand two feet from a wall, with your toes pointed inward palms against the wall. Keeping your knees straight and feet flat, lean forward onto your hands without bending at the waist. Feel your calf muscles pull and extend. Hold this position for 10 seconds, and then gently push away from the wall. Repeat.
  • Take the plunge - Exercising in the water can build strength and increase range of motion, while the waters buoyancy reduces wear and tear on sore joints. Check the local YMCA or call your local Arthritis Foundation office for an aquatic exercise program in your area.
  • Make a pack - When joints are hot and inflamed, applying something cold can decrease pain and swelling by constricting blood vessels and preventing fluids from leaking into surrounding tissues. Our favorite ice pack: a bag of frozen peas or corn that can be molded to the shape of your body.
  • Kick butt - If only for a day, and then another and another. Smoking can increase your risk of complications from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It can predispose you to osteoporosis. Also, if you have to undergo joint surgery, smoking can prolong your recovery.
  • Open your heart - Select a group that holds a special place in your heart the elderly, the homeless, animals and volunteer with an organization that helps them. Or raise money for a cause you believe in. Helping others can be a great way to help you forget your own problems or at least put them into perspective.
  • Enjoy Your Exercise - Take the work out of working out. Sign up for a class that makes exercise fun country line dancing, ballroom dancing, swimming, yoga or tai chi.
  • Play 20 questions - Well, maybe not 20, but write down questions about your condition or your medications as you think of them. Prioritize them and slip them into your purse or wallet before your next doctor's visit. When you see the doctor, you'll have your top concerns at your fingertips.
  • Appeal to a higher power - No one knows exactly how, but research is showing that spiritual belief and prayer can help people feel better physically and emotionally.
  • Turn the other cheek - Looking good helps you feel good. If an arthritis-related condition or its treatment has caused a rash on or tightening or swelling of your face, check at the cosmetics counter of your local department store for tips or special products to camouflage these problems and give your cheeks a healthy looking glow.