Arthritis involves inflammation of one or more joints and the breakdown of cartilage. Cartilage normally protects the joint, allowing for smooth movement. Cartilage also absorbs shock when pressure is placed on the joint, like when you walk or otherwise bear weight. Without the usual amount of cartilage, the bones rub together, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness.
See also joint pain.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
You may have joint inflammation for a variety of reasons, including:
- Broken bone
- Infection (usually caused by bacteria or viruses)
- An autoimmune disease (the body attacks itself because the immune system believes a body part is foreign)
- General “wear and tear” on joints
Often, the inflammation goes away after the injury has healed, the disease is treated, or the infection has been cleared.
With some injuries and diseases, the inflammation does not go away or destruction results in long-term pain and deformity. When this happens, you have chronic arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type and is more likely to occur as you age. You may feel it in any of your joints, but most commonly in your hips, knees or fingers. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include:
- Being overweight
- Previously injuring the affected joint
- Using the affected joint in a repetitive action that puts stress on the joint (baseball players, ballet dancers, and construction workers are all at risk)
Arthritis can occur in men and women of all ages. About 37 million people in America have arthritis of some kind, which is almost 1 out of every 7 people.
Other types or cause of arthritis include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (in adults)
- Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (in children)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Reiter’s syndrome (reactive arthritis)
- Adult Still’s disease
- Viral arthritis
- Gonococcal arthritis
- Other bacterial infections (non-gonococcal bacterial arthritis)
- Tertiary Lyme disease (the late stage)
- Tuberculous arthritis
- Fungal infections such as blastomycosis
If you have arthritis, you may experience:
- Joint pain
- Joint swelling
- Stiffness, especially in the morning
- Warmth around a joint
- Redness of the skin around a joint
- Reduced ability to move the joint
Signs and tests
First, your doctor will take a detailed medical history to see if arthritis or another musculoskeletal problem is the likely cause of your symptoms.
Next, a thorough physical examination may show that fluid is collecting around the joint. (This is called an “effusion.”) The joint may be tender when it is gently pressed, and may be warm and red (especially in infectious arthritis and autoimmune arthritis). It may be painful or difficult to rotate the joints in some directions. This is known as “limited range-of-motion.”
In some autoimmune forms of arthritis, the joints may become deformed if the disease is not treated. Such joint deformities are the hallmarks of severe, untreated rheumatoid arthritis.
Tests vary depending on the suspected cause. They often include blood tests and joint x-rays. To check for infection and other causes of arthritis (like gout caused by crystals), joint fluid is removed from the joint with a needle and examined under a microscope. See the specific types of arthritis for further information.
Treatment of arthritis depends on the particular cause, which joints are affected, severity, and how the condition affects your daily activities. Your age and occupation will also be taken into consideration when your doctor works with you to create a treatment plan.
If possible, treatment will focus on eliminating the underlying cause of the arthritis. However, the cause is NOT necessarily curable, as with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment, therefore, aims at reducing your pain and discomfort and preventing further disability.
It is possible to greatly improve your symptoms from osteoarthritis and other long-term types of arthritis without medications. In fact, making lifestyle changes without medications is preferable for osteoarthritis and other forms of joint inflammation. If needed, medications should be used in addition to lifestyle changes.
Exercise for arthritis is necessary to maintain healthy joints, relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength. Your exercise program should be tailored to you as an individual. Work with a physical therapist to design an individualized program, which should include:
- Range of motion exercises for flexibility
- Strength training for muscle tone
- Low-impact aerobic activity (also called endurance exercise)
A physical therapist can apply heat and cold treatments as needed and fit you for splints or orthotic (straightening) devices to support and align joints. This may be particularly necessary for rheumatoid arthritis. Your physical therapist may also consider water therapy, ice massage, or transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS).
Rest is just as important as exercise. Sleeping 8 to 10 hours per night and taking naps during the day can help you recover from a flare-up more quickly and may even help prevent exacerbations. You should also:
- Avoid positions or movements that place extra stress on your affected joints.
- Avoid holding one position for too long.
- Reduce stress, which can aggravate your symptoms. Try meditation or guided imagery. And talk to your physical therapist about yoga or tai chi.
- Modify your home to make activities easier. For example, have grab bars in the shower, the tub, and near the toilet.
Other measures to try include:
- Taking glucosamine and chondroitin - these form the building blocks of cartilage, the substance that lines joints. These supplements are available at health food stores or supermarkets. Early studies indicate that these compounds are safe and may improve your arthritis symptoms. More research is underway.
- Eat a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, especially antioxidants like vitamin E. These are found in fruits and vegetables. Get selenium from Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, garlic, whole grains, sunflower seeds, and Brazil nuts. Get omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fish (like salmon, mackerel, and herring), flaxseed, rapeseed (canola) oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
- Apply capsaicin cream (derived from hot chili peppers) to the skin over your painful joints. You may feel improvement after applying the cream for 3-7 days.
Your doctor will choose from a variety of medications as needed. Generally, the first drugs to try are available without a prescription. These include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) - recommended by the American College of Rheumatology and the American Geriatrics Society as first-line treatment for osteoarthritis. Take up to 4 grams a day (2 extra-strength Tylenols every 6 hours). This can provide significant relief of arthritis pain without many of the side effects of prescription drugs. DO NOT exceed the recommended doses of acetaminophen or take the drug in combination with large amounts of alcohol. These actions may damage your liver.
- Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen - these anti-inflammatory drugs are often effective in combating arthritis pain. However, they have many potential risks, especially if used for a long time. They should not be taken in any amount without consulting your doctor. The most dangerous side effects are stomach ulcers, bleeding from the digestive tract, and kidney damage. If you have kidney or liver disease, or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding, you should not take these medicines unless your doctor specifically recommends them.
Prescription medicines include:
- Cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors - these drugs, such as celecoxib, treat arthritis pain in a fashion similar to traditional NSAIDs. However, they seem to cause less stomach irritation and confer a lower risk of ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. Because these drugs can still affect the digestive tract and can be toxic to the kidneys, they should be taken under careful medical supervision.
- Corticosteroids (“steroids”) - these are medications that suppress the immune system and symptoms of inflammation. They are commonly used in severe cases of osteoarthritis, and they can be given orally or by injection. Steroids are used to treat autoimmune forms of arthritis but should be avoided in infectious arthritis. Steroids have multiple side effects, including upset stomach and gastrointestinal bleeding, high blood pressure, thinning of bones, cataracts, and increased infections. The risks are most pronounced when steroids are taken for long periods of time or at high doses. Close supervision by a physician is essential.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs - these have been used traditionally to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune causes of arthritis. These drugs include gold salts, penicillamine, sulfasalazine, and hydrochloroquine. More recently, methotrexate has been shown to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and improve your quality of life. Methotrexate itself can be highly toxic and requires frequent blood tests for patients on the medication.
- Anti-biologics - these are the most recent breakthrough for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Such medications, including etanercept (Enbrel) and infliximab (Remicade), are administered by injection and can dramatically improve your quality of life.
- Immunosuppressants - these drugs, like azathioprine or cyclophosphamide, are used for serious cases of rheumatoid arthritis when other medications have failed.
It is very important to take your medications as directed by your doctor. If you are having difficulty doing so (for example, due to intolerable side effects), you should talk to your doctor.
SURGERY AND OTHER APPROACHES
In some cases, surgery to rebuild the joint (arthroplasty) or to replace the joint (such as a total knee joint replacement) may help maintain a more normal lifestyle. The decision to perform joint replacement surgery is normally made when other alternatives, such as lifestyle changes and medications, are no longer effective.
Normal joints contain a lubricant called “synovial fluid.” In joints with arthritis, this fluid is not produced in adequate amounts. A relatively recent treatment approach is to inject arthritic joints with a manmade version of joint fluid known as hylan G-F 20 (Synvisc). This synthetic fluid may postpone the need for surgery at least temporarily and improve the quality of life for arthritis patients. Many studies are evaluating the effectiveness of this type of therapy.
A few arthritis-related disorders can be completely cured with treatment. Most are chronic (long-term) conditions, however, and the goal of treatment is to control the pain and minimize joint damage. Chronic arthritis frequently goes in and out of remission.
- Chronic pain
- Lifestyle restrictions or disability
Calling your health care provider
Call your doctor if:
- Your joint pain persists beyond 3 days.
- You have severe unexplained joint pain.
- The affected joint is significantly swollen.
- You have a hard time moving the joint.
- Your skin around the joint is red or hot to the touch.
- You have a fever or have lost weight unintentionally.
If arthritis is diagnosed and treated early, you can prevent joint damage. Find out if you have a family history of arthritis and share this information with your doctor, even if you have no joint symptoms.
Osteoarthritis may be more likely to develop if you abuse your joints (injure them many times or over-use them while injured). Take care not to overwork a damaged or sore joint. Similarly, avoid excessive repetitive motions.
Excess weight also increases the risk for developing osteoarthritis in the knees, and possibly in the hips and hands. See the article on body mass index to learn whether your weight is healthy.
by Martin A. Harms, M.D.
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.