Targeting Arthritis

"Arthritis and other rheumatic conditions have an annual economic impact on the nation roughly equivalent to a moderate recession, with an aggregate cost of about 1.1% of the gross national product."

-- Edward H. Yelin, Ph.D.
Professor (Adjunct) of Medicine and Health Policy
University of California, San Francisco

Arthritis affects more than 42 million Americans, or almost one out of every six people, making it one of the most prevalent diseases in the United States.

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States, limiting everyday activities for more than 7 million Americans. In many cases, arthritis deprives people of their freedom and independence and disrupts the lives of family members and other care givers. In addition, disabilities from arthritis create enormous health care costs for individuals, their families, and the nation. Each year, arthritis results in 39 million physician visits and more than half a million hospitalizations. Estimated medical care costs for people with arthritis total $15 billion annually, and total costs (medical care and lost productivity) are estimated at almost $65 billion annually.

The impact of arthritis is expected to increase dramatically as the "baby boomers" age. By 2020, an estimated 60 million Americans, or almost 20% of the population, will be affected by arthritis, and more than 11 million will be disabled.

Arthritis comprises a variety of diseases and conditions, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, childhood arthritis, gout, bursitis, rheumatic fever, Lyme arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. These diseases and conditions can result in debilitating and at times life-threatening complications. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, the two most common forms of arthritis, have the greatest public health implications.

Osteoarthritis, also known as "degenerative joint disease," results from physical changes in joints and surrounding tissues, leading to pain, tenderness, swelling, and decreased function. The joints most often affected are the hip, knee, and hand. Osteoarthritis affects more than 20 million people. The risk of having osteoarthritis increases as people get older. In addition to advancing age, risk factors for osteoarthritis include joint trauma, obesity, and repetitive joint use.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful, potentially disabling disease characterized by chronic inflammation of the joint lining. In severe cases, this inflammation extends to other joint tissues and surrounding cartilage, where it may erode bone and cartilage and lead to joint deformities. Symptoms include stiffness, pain, and swelling of multiple joints. Rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 2 million people in the United States. Two to three times more women are affected than men.


Making a Difference for People with Arthritis

Prevailing myths have portrayed arthritis as an old person's disease, an inevitable part of aging that must be endured. However, effective interventions are available to prevent much of the burden of arthritis and its complications. Some forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, can be prevented with weight control and precautions to avoid certain occupational and sports injuries. Similarly, the pain and disability accompanying all types of arthritis can be minimized through early diagnosis and appropriate management, including weight control, physical activity, self-management, physical and occupational therapy, and joint replacement therapy when indicated.

Effective help is available now for people with arthritis. In addition to medications and physical therapy, knowing how to manage their arthritis can greatly benefit people with this disease. A course developed at Stanford University, the Arthritis Self-Help Course, teaches people about arthritis and how to minimize its symptoms. This 6-week course, taught in a group setting, has been shown to reduce arthritis pain by 20% and physician visits by 40%. However, in 1997, it still reached fewer than 1% of people with arthritis. More widespread use of this course nationwide would save money as well as reduce the impact of arthritis.

Arthritis is not just an "old person's disease": nearly three of every five people with arthritis are younger than 65 years.

WebMD Public Information from the CDC


"Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "At a Glance", a CDC publication: Targeting Arthritis: The Nation's Leading Cause of Disability. June 1, 1999. (Online)"