Learning the Basics About Arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for more than 100 rheumatic diseases. According to the Arthritis Foundation, some form of arthritis affects over a million Americans. This article answers the commonly asked questions about arthritis.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis refers to more than 100 rheumatic diseases. Arthritis is characterized by joint inflammation, pain, heat in the affected area and reduced physical function.

The most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Osteoarthritis is caused by the “wear and tear” of joints and commonly affects the knees, hip and back. Approximately 20 million Americans have osteoarthritis, making it the most common form of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that typically affects people aged 25-50, and women two to three times more often than men.

What causes arthritis?

The causes of some types of arthritis are known, but the causes of most remain unknown. Researchers continue to investigate potential causes in the hopes of finding new treatments. Some types of arthritis, such as RA, seem to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Other types, like OA, may be caused by injury or gradual cartilage damage. Still others may be caused by infection.

How do I know if I have arthritis?

It’s estimated that over 40 million Americans have some form of arthritis, with the numbers expected to increase dramatically in the next 20 years. Different types of arthritis have different warning signs. Some of the more common symptoms include morning stiffness, heat around the affected joints, joint stiffness, swelling or pain.

Physicians diagnose arthritis based on history of symptoms, physical examination, and x-ray and other lab test results. Blood tests may be used to diagnose some forms of arthritis, such as RA. If you suspect that you may have arthritis, keeping a journal of your symptoms may help your physician look for patterns and aid in diagnosis.

How is arthritis treated?

Treatment of arthritis depends on the type of arthritis identified. Most medications available now are used to ease the symptoms of arthritis. There are also several drugs designed to slow disease progression or prevent further joint damage.

The most common drugs for relieving symptoms of artritis are analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Analgesics are used to relieve pain, while NSAIDs are used to limit swelling and joint inflammation. Some NSAIDs have harsh side effects on the stomach, and a new class of NSAIDs called cox-2 inhibitors, without the gastrointestinal side effects, has been developed.

Other treatments for arthritis may include heat or cold therapy, surgery, exercise and physical therapy.

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