There is nothing more debilitating than arthritis. This very common disease knows no boundaries when it comes to age, sex, or race – it is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
Often associated with joint swelling, redness, stiffness, a limited range of motion, and pain, symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. Impacting more than 50 million American adults and 300,000 children, arthritis is unfortunately more common than most people realize. Because the symptoms and pain can be so wide-ranging, the disease impacts each person differently.
You may know someone who struggles to walk up and down stairs and you may know someone who is able to play tennis regularly and enjoy her garden. The individual impacts of this disease can make it hard for friends, family, and colleagues to understand how limiting the disease can be.
We want to create better understanding of arthritis and urge you to share this article with your friends, family, colleagues, and social media network. If you know someone who has it, take the time to listen to them and understand what they’re going through – don’t dismiss their pain or chalk it up to small aches. If you have the disease, we hope you’re getting the right medical care and support you need to manage your disease and pain.
The term “arthritis” actually refers to over 100 different known types of joint pain and joint disease. Some more commonly known types include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and juvenile arthritis. But other diseases and conditions including gout, degenerative disc disease, lupus, and carpal tunnel syndrome are all types.
Researchers have classified these over 100 different manifestations of arthritis into four primary categories of disease:
- Degenerative. The most common type of degenerative arthritis is osteoarthritis. With degenerative arthritis, the cartilage that cushions your joints slowly wears away, resulting in bone-on-bone rubbing and pressure which then causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. With the constant wear and rubbing, the joints begin to lose their flexibility and strength, resulting in chronic pain. The risk factors for degenerative arthritis include family history, excess weight, age, and previous injury history to major joints. The treatment ranges depending on the exact type of degenerative arthritis, but mild or moderate osteoarthritis can be eased with maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening the muscles around the joint, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, avoiding repetitive motions, and taking care to give your body a break.
- Inflammatory. The immune system is designed to protect us from disease, illness, and pain with protective inflammation. When the immune system become over-reactive, it can stimulate an auto-immune response that results in attacking otherwise healthy parts of the body with too much inflammation. With inflammatory arthritis, this over-reactive immune system attacks healthy joints with too much inflammation, causing joint erosion and damage to internal organs, eyes, and other body parts. Rheumatoid arthritis is an example of inflammatory arthritis and many people living with another auto-immune disease such as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis will also develop inflammatory arthritis. While there is no known exact cause for inflammatory arthritis, researchers believe there could be a connection between genetics and environmental factors. Treatment for this type of arthritis ranges with the symptoms but often strong biologic drugs are administered to control both inflammation and pain.
- Infectious. Caused by bacteria, a virus, or fungus that enters the joints and triggers inflammation, infectious arthritis is easy to overlook. For example, infectious arthritis can be caused by salmonella poisoning, hepatitis C, or a sexually transmitted disease. Treatment is typically with an antibiotic, when caught early enough to prevent a chronic condition.
- Metabolic. When the body creates too much uric acid, this acid builds up in the joints causing needle-like crystals that cause sudden and severe spikes of intense joint pain. A common example of metabolic arthritis is gout. The treatment includes taking measure to control uric acid levels, this can be done with diet or may require prescription medications.
Visit the Arthritis Foundation website to learn more about the over 100 different types.
The primary signs and symptoms are inflammation and joint stiffness, however due to the wide-ranging nature, the symptoms can often be hard to identify. A person suffering from enteropathic arthritis due to ulcerative colitis may, for example may have zero swelling or redness but be suffering from intense joint pain in the feet, knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, and hands.
The swelling and inflammation that is common to many types can cause your joints to feel stiff in the morning and can vary in intensity and duration. In osteoarthritis, the stiffness often comes after exercise or other repetitive motion, as the disease progresses this stiffness worsens, eventually causing the joint to fail. Or you may feel that your body begins to stiffen and tighten up when you sit down at your desk to work or to relax in the evening.
Depending on your exact type of the disease, this joint swelling, inflammation, and stiffness can impact any joint in your body – you may have stiff fingers and hands, tight wrists, limited mobility in your knees, hips, or shoulders.
Each type of arthritis comes with its own list of signs and symptoms – don’t ignore redness, swelling, reduced joint mobility, a hot sensation in the joint, fever, new fatigue, or an unexplained rash. Talk to your doctor and try to track the severity and occurrences of your symptoms to better enable a diagnosis.
Living Well with Arthritis
It is possible to live a full and active life. However, this quality of life does depend on your type of the disease, the severity of the disease, and how it is being managed. When caught and treated early, many people with arthritis are able to return to living a busy and active life.
It’s important that you limit the stress on your joints, you can do this by maintaining a healthy weight and by strengthening the muscles and tendons that support your joints. Supportive exercise such as swimming, walking, water aerobics, cycling, and yoga are gentle ways to keep your joints flexible and to provide supportive muscle-building.
Depending on the severity, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter medication, prescription medication, or some lifestyle changes. Follow the recommendations of your doctor and do ask questions.
It’s important that you give your body the break it needs. As you know, pain can come in waves or flares – pay attention to the signals your body is giving you. Give yourself the time and opportunities to rest, relax, and get extra sleep. It’s okay to say no to invitations and to take the time you need to let your body rest. Do talk to your healthcare professional about the mental and emotional aspects of living with chronic pain – you should never suffer in silence.