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What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a complex disorder that can affect people at any age or stage of life. It is estimated that as many as one in three adults in the United States currently suffers from a form of arthritis. Two of the most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Although osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have very different causes and risk factors they share a common symptom – persistent pain in the joints. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are usually noticed first in the hips, knees, hands, wrists and other joints in the body. If you are suffering from persistent pain in one or more of your joints you may be suffering from arthritis. Only your doctor can diagnose which type of arthritis you have. Arthritis is usually treated by a rheumatologist, a physician who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bones.


Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage in a joint. Cartilage is important because it cushions the ends of the bones in the body’s joints and allows easier movement. When cartilage breaks down, it causes the bones of the joint to rub together. This results in stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the affected joint. Osteoarthritis is also called degenerative joint disease, ostoarthrosis and degenerative arthritis.

Human beings have been dealing with osteoarthritis for a long time. In fact, evidence of this disease has been found in human skeletons from the Ice Age. Despite the fact that the disease is as old as mankind, the cause is not completely understood and there is no known cure at this point. We do know that age, obesity, injuries, overuse of the joints and genetics play a role in osteoarthritis.

Some key points to understand about the different stages of osteoarthritis:

  • First, cartilage loses elasticity and is more easily damaged by injury or use.
  • Wear of the cartilage then causes changes to the underlying bone. The bone thickens and cysts may occur under the cartilage. Bone growths called spurs then develop near the end of the bone at the affected joint.
  • Bits of bone or cartilage float loosely inside the joint space.
  • The joint lining (synovium) becomes inflamed due to cartilage breakdown causing cytokines (inflammation proteins) and enzymes that damage cartilage further

These changes in the cartilage and bones of the joint are what lead to pain, stiffness and limited movement. Deterioration of cartilage can affect the shape and makeup of the affected joint. The deterioration of knee, hip and ankle joints can result in limping while walking or trouble climbing stairs.

It is important for those suffering from osteoarthritis to take an active role in the treatment of their disease to help prevent additional joint damage. If you suspect that you are suffering from arthritis you need to have a proper diagnosis and begin treatment as early as possible. Other conditions that have similar symptoms to osteoarthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis have different courses of treatment. It’s vital that you are being treated properly for the form of arthritis you are suffering from.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This form of arthritis affects approximately 2.1 million Americans, or about 1% of the adult population in the United States. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is two to three times more common in women than in men. It generally starts affecting people between the ages of 20 and 50. However, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis can affect young children.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body’s natural immune system does not work as it should. Instead, healthy joint tissue is attacked by the body, initiating a process of inflammation and joint damage.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can differ from one individual to another, but generally include the following:

  • Tenderness, warmth, or swelling in the joints. Both sides of the body are usually affected at the same time.
  • Pain and stiffness that lasts for more than one hour in the morning or after a long rest.
  • Inflammation in the wrist and finger joints. The joints of the neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles and feet can be affected too.
  • Fatigue, an occasional fever, and a general sense of not feeling well (known as malaise).
  • Symptoms that last for an extended period of time as well as symptoms in areas of the body other than the joints

Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the joint lining which leads to pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in the joints. It can also cause inflammation of your tear glands, salivary glands, the lining of your heart and lungs, and even the lungs themselves.

As the disease progresses, some sufferers develop small lumps of tissue under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. However, these usually aren’t painful. The nodules can form under the skin of the elbow, hands, the back of the scalp, over the knee or on the feet and heels.

Unfortunately, the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not yet known. Scientists have discovered that many factors may contribute to the development of rheumatoid arthritis including genetic and hereditary factors. Environmental factors may also contribute to the cause of the disease. Researchers have found that rheumatoid arthritis can be triggered by an infection, possibly a virus or bacterium, in people who have an inherited tendency for the disease. However, rheumatoid arthritis is not a contagious disease, so you don’t have to worry about it catching it from anyone.

If you are showing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis it is important that you see your doctor. Early intervention can ensure that you receive the proper diagnosis and correct treatment needed. By receiving treatment early, irreversible joint damage can be prevented. Your physician will help educate you about rheumatoid arthritis and devise a treatment plan to deal with your disease.

Note: information utilized in the above article was gathered from www.arthritis.com, the Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology.

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