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Joint Pain Not Inevitable With Age

Creaking knees, hips, and ankles aren't necessarily normal aches and pains that come with age. Your pain might be arthritis. Luckily, medicine has a lot to offer --- from exercise and alternative supplements to medications and joint replacement.

Getting the Right Diagnosis continued...

Common pain-related conditions:

Osteoarthritis: This is often called degenerative joint disease and is the most common type of arthritis in the over-50 crowd. As we get older, the rubbery cartilage that serves as a shock absorber to our joints becomes stiff, loses its elasticity, and becomes more susceptible to damage. As the cartilage wears away, tendons and ligaments stretch, causing pain. It can occur in almost any joint in the body - most commonly in the fingers, hips, knees, and spine.

Symptoms include joint aching and soreness, pain, and bony knots in the finger joints. Medications, painkillers, and alternative supplements (like glucosamine and chondroitin) can help relieve the pain. But lifestyle changes like weight loss may also be necessary to reduce stress on weight-bearing joints.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: This form of arthritis is very different from degenerative joint disease. The inflammation occurs in joints on both sides of the body - a symmetry that helps distinguish it from other types of arthritis. However, many of the symptoms sound familiar - joint pain and swelling, joint stiffness, and fatigue. Researchers believe that an external organism - like a virus or bacteria - may alter the immune system, causing it to attack the joints and sometimes other organs.

"Rheumatoid arthritis is not just a benign joint disease," Hoffman tells WebMD. "It can lead to early death. With rheumatoid arthritis, there is quite good evidence that early diagnosis and aggressive treatment can help to maintain function, prevent disability, and improve survival."

Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR) and Temporal Arteritis (TA): These inflammatory diseases often occur together and are thought to be related. PMR is a disease involving the larger joints of the body like the hip and shoulders. TA is an inflammation of the blood vessels to the head, including the eyes. Both conditions are caused by the body's immune system reacting against itself.

Pain and stiffness in shoulder and hip joints, fever, weight loss, and fatigue - these are all symptoms of PMR. Often the only symptom is the inability to get out of a chair easily or raising the arms to brush one's hair. The most common symptom of TA is a severe headache - and if not treated, TA can cause irreversible blindness, stroke, or transient ischemic attacks (ministrokes.)

The cause of these disorders is not known, but they seem to occur most frequently in people of Scandinavian or Northern European descent. "Yet once it's diagnosed, the treatment is very straightforward -- prednisone, a steroid," says Gaeta. "But most people have never heard of this form of arthritis. It points to the need to talk to your doctor."

Fibromyalgia: This chronic disorder creates pain and tenderness at numerous points throughout the body, resulting in serious sleep problems and fatigue. The cause of fibromyalgia is poorly understood, but is not related to any muscle, nerve, or joint injury. One theory is that the condition may be related to oversensitive nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. Or it may be due to an imbalance in brain chemicals that control mood, lowers a person's tolerance for pain, possibly triggering a cycle of restless sleep, fatigue, inactivity, sensitivity, and pain.

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