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Arthritis is a common health condition that affects your joints. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 people in the United States has some form of doctor-diagnosed arthritis (Barbour, 2017).
While arthritis is more common among older adults, it can affect people at any age. Here’s what you need to know about arthritis, its causes, and how to treat it.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is an inflammatory condition that affects one or multiple joints. It can be acute––meaning it shows up suddenly but lasts a shorter time––or chronic. Arthritis causes symptoms like pain, tenderness, and discomfort in your joints (Senthelal, 2021).
Healthy joints are cushioned by cartilage and what’s called synovial fluid. Articular (joint) cartilage is a thin, smooth type of connective tissue at the end of each bone. Synovial fluid, also called joint fluid, is a thick liquid that lubricates the joints to help them move smoothly and pain-free. Together, the cartilage and fluid keep joints protected and well-oiled.
Arthritis is usually caused by inflammation or the breakdown of the joints over time. Symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe pain that makes it challenging to move. Common joints affected by arthritis include hands, knees, feet, hips, and back.
Types of arthritis
There are a number of arthritis types. Here are the ones seen most often (Senthelal, 2021):
- Osteoarthritis (OA): This is the most common form of arthritis. It’s sometimes called a degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” because it develops as a normal part of aging as joints break down from use.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This is a type of inflammatory arthritis that causes swelling, pain, and stiffness in joints. RA is an autoimmune condition, meaning the body’s immune system produces antibodies that attack tissue and damage joints instead of protecting them (Chauhan, 2021).
- Psoriatic arthritis: This form of joint inflammation is linked to psoriasis, a skin condition characterized by red, scaly patches. Roughly 30% of people with psoriasis also deal with psoriatic arthritis (Ogdie, 2015).
- Ankylosing spondylitis: This inflammatory condition impacts joints in the spine. As the disease progresses, the spine becomes less flexible and you may develop a hunched posture (Wenker, 2021).
- Gout: This is another form of arthritis where sudden flares cause severe pain, swelling, and redness in one or more joints––most often the big toe. A gout flare-up is caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals and causes sudden, often severe pain in joints.
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis: Previously called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis or juvenile arthritis, this is when the immune system attacks joints in people younger than 16 years old. Some have symptoms for only a few months, while others have symptoms for many years. (Thatayatikom, 2021).
- Septic arthritis: This form of arthritis is caused by a bacterial infection in the joint. Most often, the bacteria travel to the joint through the blood from another part of the body. Infections from the Staphylococcus aureus (staph) are the most common cause of septic arthritis.
- Reactive arthritis: Inflammation in the joints can be triggered by an infection in another area, such as the intestines, genitals, or urinary tract. If there’s an infection elsewhere in the body, you may experience joint pain days or weeks after the initial infection (Cheeti, 2022).
- Thumb arthritis: This occurs when the joint at the base of your thumb wears down. It can result from an injury or other types of arthritis like OA or RA. Pain and difficulty grasping, pinching, or gripping are hallmarks of thumb arthritis (Higgenbotham, 2017).
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What causes arthritis?
The causes of arthritis vary based on what type it is. And for some types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, the exact causes are still unknown. Let’s explore some of the known causes of arthritis and how they manifest in different parts of the body.
A family history of arthritis can increase your chances of developing the condition. For example:
- Osteoarthritis risk has been linked to mutations in genes responsible for producing collagen––a protein that supports skin elasticity and healthy joints (Senthelal, 2021)
- Rheumatoid arthritis risk is linked to changes in what are called HLA class II genes (Dedmon, 2020).
- Gout risk appears to be linked to several genes and having a family member with gout increases the chances for it to develop (MacFarlane, 2014).
Joint injuries and stress
Injuries and repeated stress on joints can lead to arthritis. An injury or trauma can damage cartilage and the structure of a joint, which over time bring on arthritis symptoms.
Repetitive movements and repeated stress—like manual labor, or playing a sport—puts pressure and strain on your joints. Over time this wears them down. Injury and stress are common causes of osteoarthritis, especially in the knee (Blagojevic, 2010).
Arthritis can be caused by autoimmune diseases, which trigger the immune system to attack otherwise healthy parts of your body. As we mentioned earlier, psoriasis is an example of an autoimmune disease that can lead to psoriatic arthritis.
The immune system likely plays a role in the development of other types including RA, gout, septic arthritis, reactive arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis (Poudel, 2021).
Bacterial and viral infections can trigger increased inflammation in the body, resulting in arthritis symptoms. Reactive and septic arthritis are examples of arthritis forms that evolve from infections (Poudel, 2021).
Everything you need to know about gout
Risk factors for arthritis
Several factors increase your risk for developing arthritis, such as (Blagojevic, 2010):
- Age: Arthritis is more likely to develop in older adults.
- Biological sex: Some types of arthritis, like RA, are seen more often in females.
- Lifestyle: Diet, exercise, and posture are all lifestyle factors that can impact the risk of arthritis.
- Weight: If you live with obesity or are overweight, it can increase pressure on your joints and potentially cause future problems.
Symptoms vary depending on what form of arthritis you have. Common symptoms among all types include (Senthelal, 2022):
- Trouble moving
- Changes in mobility, range of motion, and strength
Symptoms can be chronic and constant or bouts of fleeting, sudden joint pain. People with arthritis experience mild discomfort to severe pain.
If you’re having joint pain and suspect arthritis, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. They’ll ask questions about your symptoms, medical history, and perform an exam to assess your mobility and joints.
- Imaging: X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and ultrasounds assess the health of cartilage, synovial fluid, and joints.
- Blood tests: Arthritis usually can’t be diagnosed with blood work. But if your doctor suspects specific types, like RA or gout, they may order a blood test to look for things like uric acid and inflammatory markers.
If necessary, you may be referred to a specialist (like a rheumatologist or orthopedic surgeon) to help diagnose and manage your condition.
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How to treat arthritis
There is no cure for arthritis, so the goal of treatment is pain relief and improving quality of life. Certain treatments can put arthritis into remission (when there’s no visible sign of symptoms) and prevent further joint damage.
The right treatment plan depends on the type and severity of your condition. Here are some of the main treatments for arthritis (Mian, 2019; Qiu, 2010):
How to prevent arthritis
- Oral medication: Anti-inflammatory, pain management, and immunosuppressive medications (like biologics) are used to treat arthritis. For mild cases, you may be able to manage symptoms with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. Other medications like corticosteroids or biologics might be recommended.
- Physical therapy: Increasing physical activity can help build strength, increase range of motion, decrease pain, and maintain mobility. Exercises and diets for weight loss can also reduce pressure on joints and ease pain.
- Injections: Therapeutic injections, like cortisone shots, can manage pain and inflammation and target just the area around the affected joint. Another type of injection called viscosupplementation may help with arthritis pain by replacing synovial fluid to lubricate the joints.
- Surgery: In more severe cases of arthritis, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery such as a joint replacement or fusion. Joint replacements help restore movement and reduce pain. This can be done for knee, hip, shoulder, and ankle joints. For arthritis affecting the spine, your doctor may recommend fusing two or more vertebrae together to reduce pain.
- Perform low-impact physical activity (like cycling or yoga)
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a nutritious diet
- Maintain a good posture
- Use proper form when lifting heavy objects (i.e. lifting with your legs, not your back)
- Avoid tobacco products
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When to see a healthcare provider
Pain or stiffness joints is a common problem most people face as they get older. If you develop new joint pain, it’s still a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider and help determine the cause. If it is arthritis, they’ll work with you to find the best treatment plan to increase your mobility and maintain a high quality of life.
- Barbour, K. E., Helmick, C. G., Boring, M., & Brady, T. J. (2017). Vital Signs: Prevalence of Doctor-Diagnosed Arthritis and Arthritis-Attributable Activity Limitation – United States, 2013-2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 66(9), 246–253. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6609e1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28278145/
- Bijlsma, J. W. & Knahr, K. (2007). Strategies for the prevention and management of osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 21(1), 59–76. doi:10.1016/j.berh.2006.08.013. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17350544/
- Blagojevic, M., Jinks, C., Jeffery, A., & Jordan, K. P. (2010). Risk factors for onset of osteoarthritis of the knee in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 18(1), 24–33. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2009.08.010. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19751691/
- Chauhan, K., Jandu, J. S., Goyal, A., et al. (2021). Rheumatoid arthritis. [Updated Oct 7, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441999/
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- Dedmon, L. E. (2020). The genetics of rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology, 59(10), 2661–2670. doi:10.1093/rheumatology/keaa232. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32638005/
- Higgenbotham, C., Boyd, A., Busch, M., Heaton, D., & Trumble, T. (2017). Optimal management of thumb basal joint arthritis: challenges and solutions. Orthopedic Research And Reviews, 9, 93–99. doi:10.2147/ORR.S138809. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6209361/
- MacFarlane, L. A. & Kim, S. C. (2014). Gout: a review of nonmodifiable and modifiable risk factors. Rheumatic Diseases Clinics of North America, 40(4), 581–604. doi:10.1016/j.rdc.2014.07.002. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4251556/
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- Ogdie, A. & Gelfand, J. M. (2015). Clinical Risk Factors for the Development of Psoriatic Arthritis Among Patients with Psoriasis: A Review of Available Evidence. Current Rheumatology Reports, 17(10), 64. doi:10.1007/s11926-015-0540-1 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC5278907/
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.