If you’ve experienced aching or stiffness in your joints, you may believe this is a normal part of aging. But could you be suffering from arthritis?
Arthritis is an incredibly common health condition that is typically associated with getting older—nearly 44% of the U.S. population is affected. While arthritis is more common in patients who are older than 65, people of all ages can get arthritis, with arthritis often limiting mobility or curtailing daily activities.
What Is Arthritis?
The word arthritis is an umbrella term encompassing over 100 arthritic conditions, including all forms of joint inflammation, conditions affecting the joints and their surrounding tissues, and problems that affect connective tissue in the body.
Here are some of the common forms of arthritis:
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis in which the cartilage protecting your bones wears down. Osteoarthritis is most commonly experienced in the hands, knees, hips, and spine. This type of arthritis is degenerative, which means it gets worse over time. It is important to manage symptoms and explore treatments early.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues; this condition causes a painful swelling that directly impacts the lining of your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is not limited to an afflicted person’s joints and can damage many systems across the body due to its inflammatory effects.
As you can gather from its name, psoriatic arthritis affects people who have psoriasis, which is a chronic inflammatory skin disease. Psoriatic arthritis can affect the entire body and gets worse over time, though patients may experience periods of remission or low symptoms.
Juvenile arthritis is inflammation of the joints in children under the age of 16. There are five types of juvenile arthritis; most involve immune system dysfunction and inflammation.
What Causes Arthritis?
There are many different types of arthritis so it’s not possible to identify a single cause. Osteoarthritis can be a result of normal wear-and-tear on your joints that comes with age, while rheumatoid arthritis can be rooted in genetics or other causes.
Although the causes of arthritis can differ by type, some factors have been linked to the development of most types of arthritis including:
- A previous history of injury to the joint
- Genetics and family history
- Patient history of infections, such as Lyme disease
- Immune system abnormalities
- Certain occupations that require repetitive motions
- Diet (i.e. for gout patients, high-purine diets may be a factor)
Symptoms and Signs of Arthritis
Typically, arthritis patients first notice pain, stiffness, redness, and/or swelling in and around their joints. Many patients report that their pain is worse in the morning, gradually abating over the course of the day. Joint pain may start to affect normal activity or limit range of motion as well.
Here are more specific, typical symptoms for the four types of arthritis mentioned above:
- Osteoarthritis: pain or stiffness in joints, especially upon waking. Joints may feel “off” or “different” somehow, or you may not be able to use them normally.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: swollen, painful joints that are hot to the touch. Like osteoarthritis, they may also feel stiffness that goes away throughout the course of the day. Rheumatoid arthritis can also present as systemic symptoms such as a change in appetite or depression.
- Psoriatic arthritis: can present much like rheumatoid arthritis but in addition to hot, swollen joints, there may also be swollen, painful extremities and pain in the feet or back.
- Juvenile arthritis: symptoms are variable and may include fatigue, rash, fever, joint stiffness, and weight loss.
If your symptoms are negatively impacting your quality of life, or if they last for several consecutive days, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor.
To diagnose arthritis, a doctor will complete a full examination, looking at joints, reviewing symptoms, and reviewing personal and family history. To make a diagnosis, laboratory testing and imaging may be necessary.
Some common lab tests to diagnose arthritis include:
- Hematocrit (HCT) and hemoglobin (Hgb) counts: These measure your red blood cell count—low numbers could indicate chronic inflammation.
- White blood cell count: Increased numbers could indicate the presence of infection or inflammation.
- Platelet count: Low numbers raise a concern for bleeding risk.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR): Sometimes called a sed rate test, this evaluates inflammation.
- Tests to check your kidneys, liver, and uric acid
X-rays or other imaging may be needed to evaluate joint damage and disease progression. Common imaging used to diagnose arthritis include:
- CT scan
Treatment for arthritis is intended to help reduce the damage to joints and decrease pain and discomfort. Treatment plans are highly individualized and may involve a combination of medication, physical therapy, and/or surgical intervention.
Commonly prescribed medications for arthritis include:
- Analgesics, either prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC): These medications only relieve pain—they do not reduce any inflammation in your body. Medications in this category include acetaminophen (Tylenol) or opioids.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Like analgesics, these can be prescribed or OTC. This class of medication reduces pain and inflammation.
- Counterirritants: Topical products that contain either menthol or capsaicin that can help reduce pain when applied over painful joints.
- Corticosteroids: Steroids can be taken by mouth or directly injected into the painful joint. Steroids, like prednisone, can help relieve inflammation, though they may suppress your immune system.
- Targeted prescription medications: Your condition may call for a specific prescription. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may prescribe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), or a class of drugs referred to as biologics.
Physical or occupational therapy
Physical or occupational therapy can offer some relief from pain and help improve your range of motion.
During a typical session, you may practice exercises with your therapist, receive massage therapy, or use cold and/or hot therapy on your joints. Your therapist may also recommend that you use splints or braces to increase comfort and reduce injury.
If less aggressive measures are ineffective, your doctor may recommend surgery. The available surgical interventions continue to evolve and include options like joint fusion (which joins together two bones) and joint replacement (in which a prosthesis is used).
What You Can Do at Home
Exercise is very important. It can provide symptom relief and prevent symptoms from worsening. If you have a sedentary office job, take regular breaks and walk around every half-hour or so. If you are overweight, losing weight will provide some relief; this may also increase your range of motion and keep you mobile. If high-impact exercises feel too intense, consider swimming, gentle walking, or water-based exercise classes.
Other at-home treatments to manage your arthritis include:
- Placing heating pads or ice packs on your joints
- Using assistive devices including canes and walkers
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Stopping smoking
- Trying a Mediterranean diet, which is high in fish, nuts, and other whole foods, to help decrease inflammation
- Ensuring adequate sleep
There are many natural remedies that some believe treat arthritis, but these are usually not evidenced based. Check with your doctor if you’re thinking about implementing a natural remedy into your routine.
The following factors may increase your likelihood of developing arthritis:
- Age: Your risk of arthritis increases as you age.
- Sex: Women are more likely to have most types of arthritis. Men are more prone to gout.
- Family history and genetics: If your parents or siblings had certain types of arthritis, you may be more likely to develop it.
- Weight: People who are obese have a higher risk of arthritis.
- Previous history of physical trauma or injury: Previous joint injuries increase the risk for future arthritis.
- Jobs or activities that require repetitive motions: Certain physical movements, like constant squatting, can contribute to arthritis.
- Infection: Certain bacteria and viruses can infect your joints and cause arthritis.
- Smoking. Smoking can increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
The most important thing you can do is maintain a healthy weight. Take steps to ensure good posture and ergonomic techniques at work and home. Taking precautionary measures now can help prevent future damage.
Suitable forms of exercise for arthritis include:
- Strength training
You do not have to make it to an exercise class every day in order to have an active lifestyle. Incorporating healthy habits into your life and making active choices (i.e. choosing to take the stairs over the elevator) can add up.
When to See a Doctor
According to the Arthritis Foundation, you should see your doctor as soon as possible if you have joint issues lasting more than three days or several episodes of joint problems over one month.
Pay attention to your joints and keep a log of all the times you notice restricted mobility, pain, redness, tenderness, difficulty moving, or anything else that is out of the ordinary. The good news is that if you do have arthritis, the sooner you are diagnosed and start treatment, the better your prognosis.
How K Health Can Help
Not sure if you should see a doctor for your arthritis? Use K Health’s virtual diagnosis tool to review your symptoms. You can also chat with a K physician to help assess whether your symptoms are indicative of arthritis, and what treatment options might be best.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.