Definition and Overview

Arthritis is characterized by inflammation of the joints. It is a chronic and lifelong disease that usually affects men and women over 55 years old. Patients with arthritis suffer from swelling and stiffness of the joints that make movement difficult and painful. If left untreated or unmanaged, this can eventually lead to tissue damage.

There are different types of arthritis but the most common are:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA) - Osteoarthritis is the most commonly diagnosed type of arthritis caused by the disintegration of the cartilage in the joint. As the cartilage becomes damaged, the ligaments and other parts of the joint become stretched during movement, causing pain.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) - This is an inflammatory type of arthritis wherein the synovium becomes inflamed, causing swelling and pain. When left untreated, RA can result in deformity of the joint.

  • Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) - This type of arthritis affects young patients aged sixteen and below. JRA is further broken down into 3 types: pauciarticular JRA when four or fewer joints are affected, polyarticular JRA when more than four joints are affected and the condition worsens in time, and systemic JRA when the arthritis affects the whole body.

Causes

To better understand arthritis, let us look at the anatomy and function of the joint. The joint is the area in the musculoskeletal system where two or more bones meet, such as the knee, ankle, and hip. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage, a smooth spongy material and a thin film called synovium that secretes synovial fluid. This is the body’s natural joint lubricant that allows the bones to slide through each other smoothly during movement.

Arthritis occurs when the joint areas become inflamed. This inflammation can be caused by lack of synovial fluid, wearing away of the cartilage, infection, an autoimmune disease, or a combination of various factors. These are as follows:

  • one’s genetic makeup or family history
  • a prior injury
  • allergic reactions or infections
  • physically stressful occupation, such as one where heavy, repetitive movements put undue pressure on the joint
  • obesity (extra weight can put extra strain on the joints)
  • autoimmune disease where the body seems to be attacking itself

Many arthritis patients also report that certain types of food, such as those rich in purine, can bring on or aggravate arthritis symptoms.

Key Symptoms

Arthritis initially starts with minor symptoms that progress over a period of weeks or months. Patients typically experience periodic episodes of unusual fatigue that is accompanied by general feeling of malaise. They also experience joint stiffness, pain in the affected area, swelling, and fever. Other symptoms include tingling and numbness, decreased range of motion, and weight loss.

Meanwhile, rheumatoid arthritis, which is one of the most common types of this condition, also has the following symptoms: red eyes, broken bones, dry mouth, cataract, and spots on fingers. Other types of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, result to deformed joints, sleep problems, and muscle weakness.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Medical science surrounding the treatment of arthritis has progressed over the last two decades. Arthritis specialists and rheumatologists provide highly effective medications as well as medical advice to treat and manage the symptoms of this condition. Among some of the most commonly recommended pain management options for arthritis are:

  • Aspirin to control pain and symptoms
  • Heat therapy to minimize swelling
  • Adequate rest to allow the joints to heal
  • Appropriate exercise
  • Occupational and physical therapy
  • Healthy eating habits
  • Weight loss

For inflammatory types of arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, treatment may include Prednisone medication or NSAIDs. However, recent studies have revealed that despite its effectiveness in managing arthritis symptoms, this steroid drug provides some unwanted side effects. COX-2 inhibitor drugs, glucocorticoids, antibiotics, cyclosporine (immunosuppressants) and newer biologic drugs such as Enbrel (etanercept) and Humira (adalimumab) are now being recommended with high success rates.

For more serious forms of arthritis, doctors may recommend total joint replacement or adult reconstructive surgery.

When You Should See a Rheumatologist or Pain Management Doctor

If you or any of your loved ones are experiencing joint pain and stiffness, especially one that is prolonged and recurring, it is best not to delay seeing a doctor. Rheumatologists and arthritis specialists will diagnose the type of arthritis you have and recommend the right treatment plan suited for your condition. Most forms of arthritis can now be managed with an appropriate pain management program.

Although arthritis is a difficult condition that can make your everyday tasks more exhausting to do, there are now therapies, techniques, and medications that can provide you with a better quality of life.

References:

  • Arthritis Foundation. http://www.arthritis.org
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Arthritis/
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