Arthritis is a condition caused by inflammation of the joints, but for many, it can be hard to tell the difference between normal aches and pains as we age. In fact, there are more than 100 different types of arthritis that can affect one or more joints.
The symptoms of arthritis can develop over time, or for some, they may appear suddenly. Arthritis is most commonly seen in adults over the age of 65, but it’s not uncommon to see it develop in children, teens, and younger adults. Arthritis is more common in women than men and in people who are overweight.
How do I know if I have arthritis? The most common symptoms are joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. You may also notice a decrease in your range of motion and redness of the skin around the joint.
What causes arthritis? When cartilage tissue, a firm yet flexible connective tissue in your joints that absorbs pressure and shock, is reduced, it can cause forms of arthritis as it breaks down. Normal breakdown from wear and tear typically results in Osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the tissues of the body. These attacks affect the synovium, a soft tissue in your joints that produces a fluid that nourishes the cartilage and lubricates the joints.
How is arthritis diagnosed? Seeing your primary care physician is a good first step if you’re unsure who to see for an arthritis diagnosis. They will perform a physical exam to check for fluid around the joints, warm or red joints, and limited range of motion in the joints. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist if needed.
Blood tests that check for specific types of antibodies like anti-CCP (anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide), RF (rheumatoid factor), and ANA (antinuclear antibody) are also common diagnostic tests.
Doctors commonly use imaging scans such as X-ray, MRI, and CT scans to produce an image of your bones and cartilage. This is so they can rule out other causes of your symptoms, such as bone spurs.
How is arthritis treated?
While you can’t reverse the effects of arthritis, the main goal is pain management and preventing additional damage to joints. Some people find heating pads and ice packs to be soothing. Others use mobility assistance devices, like canes or walkers, to help take pressure off sore joints. Some medications work well, but each individual may respond differently:
- Analgesics, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), are effective for pain management but don’t help decrease inflammation.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and salicylates, help control pain and inflammation. Salicylates can thin the blood, so they should be used very cautiously with additional blood-thinning medications.
- Menthol or capsaicin creams block the transmission of pain signals from your joints.
- Immunosuppressants like prednisone or cortisone help reduce inflammation.
For some, surgery to replace a joint with an artificial one may be an option – this is common for hips and knees. Joint fusion is common when it’s severe in fingers or wrists.
Physical therapy is also used to help strengthen the muscles around the joint and is a key component to treatment.
What lifestyle changes can help people with arthritis?
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight reduce the risk of developing Osteoarthritis and can reduce symptoms if you already have it.
Eating a healthy diet and infusing your body with nutrient-dense foods. Choosing a diet with lots of antioxidants, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, can help reduce inflammation. Other inflammation-reducing foods include fish and nuts.
Foods to minimize or avoid if you have arthritis include fried foods, processed foods, dairy products, sugar, and high intakes of animal proteins.
Regular exercise will keep your joints flexible. Swimming is often a good form of exercise for people with arthritis because it doesn’t put pressure on your joints the way running and walking do. Staying active is important, but you should also be sure to rest when you need to and avoid overexerting yourself.
While there’s no cure for arthritis, the right treatment can greatly reduce your symptoms.
In addition to the treatments your doctor recommends, you can make a number of lifestyle changes that may help you manage your arthritis. Want more information on arthritis and how you can make a difference in finding a cure? Visit the Arthritis Foundation.