The Basics of Arthritis

Arthritis is a broad term that covers a group of over 100 diseases. It has everything to do with your joints -- the places where your bones connect -- such as your wrists, knees, hips, or fingers. But some types of arthritis can also affect other connective tissues and organs, including your skin.

About 1 out of 5 adults have some form of the condition. It can happen to anyone, but it becomes more common as you age.

Causes

With many forms of arthritis, the cause is unknown. But some things can raise your chances of getting it.

  • Age. As you get older, your joints tend to get worn down.
  • Gender. Most types of arthritis are more common among women, except for gout.
  • Injuries. They can cause joint damage that can bring on some types of the condition.
  • Infection. Bacteria, viruses, or fungi can infect joints and trigger inflammation.
  • Work. If you go hard on your knees at work -- knee bends and squats -- you might be more likely to get osteoarthritis.

Symptoms

Arthritis mainly causes pain around your joints. You might also have:

  • One or more joints that are swollen or stiff
  • Joints that look red or feel warm to the touch
  • Tenderness
  • Trouble moving
  • Problems doing everyday tasks

The symptoms can be constant, or they may come and go. They can range from mild to severe.

More-severe cases may lead to permanent joint damage.

Types of Arthritis

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common kinds.

In osteoarthritis,the cushions on the ends of your bones, called cartilage, wear away. That makes the bones rub against each other. You might feel pain in your fingers, knees, or hips.

It usually happens as you age. But if underlying causes are to blame, it can begin much sooner. For example, an athletic injury like a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or a fracture near a joint can lead to arthritis.

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Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. This can damage the joint surface and underlying bone.

RA mostly targets your fingers, thumbs, wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, feet, and ankles.

It can give you pain, swelling, stiffness, and trouble with moving. You may also have:

Gout is another form of arthritis that can be very painful. Uric acid buildup in the body causes needle-like crystal deposits to form in your joints. You might notice lumps under your skin called tophi.

A lot of people see the first symptoms of gout in their big toe, which can get swollen, sore, red, and warm.

Other areas that gout can attack include:

  • Foot instep
  • Ankles
  • Heels
  • Knees
  • Wrists
  • Fingers
  • Elbows

Bouts of gout can come and go. The pain might become constant if you don't get the condition treated.

You can treat it with medication, but you’ll also need to control your weight, limit alcohol, and cut down on meats and fish that have chemicals called purines.

Other forms include:

When to See a Doctor

You might have occasional muscle or joint pain. That’s OK. But get help from your doctor if:

  • The pain, swelling, or redness isn’t going away.
  • Your symptoms get worse quickly.
  • You have relatives with autoimmune disorders.
  • You’ve got relatives with other arthritis-related diseases.

Don’t ignore joint pain. In some cases, it can cause damage that can’t be reversed, even with treatment. When in doubt, talk to your doctor.

How It's Diagnosed

Your doctor or an arthritis specialist called a rheumatologist will:

  • Ask for your medical and family history.
  • Give you a physical exam.
  • Look for tenderness, swelling, redness, warmth, and loss of motion in the joints.
  • Take samples of your joint fluid and test them.
  • Do imaging scans, which may include X-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds.

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Treatments

You doctor can help you manage your pain, prevent damage to the affected joint, and keep inflammation at bay.

She might recommend:

  • Medications
  • Physical therapy
  • Splints or other aids
  • Weight loss
  • In rare cases, surgery

The types of medicines your doctor might suggest are:

  • Painkillers: over-the-counter or prescription
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Biologics: drugs made from a living organism to mimic your body’s response to diseases
  • Steroids to cut down on inflammation
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs): meds that slow or stop inflammation

Alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, and physical therapy may help ease your symptoms, too. Talk to your doctor before you try them or any supplements or herbal remedies.

Manage Your Arthritis

Here’s what you can do to keep the condition in check.

  • Educate yourself. Take a self-management course to learn specifics on day-to-day arthritis care.
  • Get active. Exercise can help you move better, lessen pain, and put off disability.
  • Watch your weight. Extra pounds raise your chances of related health problems.
  • Don't put off treatment. The sooner you're treated, the more likely you are to avoid permanent joint damage.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on October 25, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Arthritis.”

Arthritis Foundation

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Arthritis.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: “Arthritis.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: “What Is Gout?”

American College of Rheumatology: “Gout.”

NIH Senior Health: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

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