Definition: Arthritis is inflammation of one or more of your joints. The main symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, which typically worsen with age. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is usually caused by normal wear and tear, while rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. Other types of arthritis can be caused by uric acid crystals, infections or even an underlying disease — such as psoriasis or lupus.
Treatments vary, depending on the type of arthritis. The main goals of arthritis treatments are to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.
The most common signs and symptoms of arthritis involve the joints. Depending on the type of arthritis you have, your signs and symptoms may include:
Decreased range of motion
The pain associated with arthritis is caused by joint damage. Joints are made up of the following parts:
Cartilage. A hard, but slick, coating on the ends of bones, cartilage allows bones of the joint to slide smoothly over each other.
Joint capsule. This tough membrane encloses all the joint parts.
Synovium. This thin membrane lines the joint capsule and secretes synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint and nourishes the cartilage.
How arthritis damages joints
The two main types of arthritis damage joints in different ways.
Osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, wear-and-tear damage to cartilage can result in bone grinding directly on bone, which causes pain and restricts movement. This wear and tear can occur over many years, or it can be hastened by a joint injury or infection.
Rheumatoid arthritis. In rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks joints and inflames the synovium, causing swelling, redness and pain. The disease can eventually destroy cartilage and bone within the joint.
Risk factors for arthritis include:
Family history. Some types of arthritis run in families, so you may be more likely to develop arthritis if your parents or siblings have the disorder. Your genes can make you more susceptible to environmental factors that may trigger arthritis.
Age. The risk of many types of arthritis — including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout — increases with age.
Sex. Women are more likely than are men to develop rheumatoid arthritis, while most of the people who have gout are men.
Previous joint injury. People who have injured a joint, perhaps while playing a sport, are more likely to eventually develop arthritis in that joint.
Obesity. Carrying excess pounds puts stress on joints, particularly your knees, hips and spine. Obese people have a higher risk of developing arthritis.
Severe arthritis, particularly if it affects your hands or arms, can make it difficult for you to take care of daily tasks. Arthritis of weight-bearing joints can keep you from walking comfortably or sitting up straight. In some cases, joints may become twisted and deformed.
Physical therapy can be helpful for some types of arthritis. Exercises can improve range of motion and strengthen the muscles surrounding joints. In some cases, splints or braces may be warranted.
If conservative measures don’t help, your doctor may suggest surgery, such as:
Joint replacement. This procedure removes your damaged joint and replaces it with an artificial one. Joints most commonly replaced are hips and knees.
Joint fusion. This procedure is more often used for smaller joints, such as those in the wrist, ankle and fingers. It removes the ends of the two bones in the joint and then locks those ends together until they heal into one rigid unit.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Weight loss. If you’re obese, losing weight will reduce the stress on your weight-bearing joints. This may increase your mobility and limit future joint injury.
Exercise. Regular exercise can help keep your joints flexible. Swimming or water aerobics is often a good choice because the buoyancy of the water reduces stress on weight-bearing joints.
Heat and cold. Heating pads or ice packs may help relieve arthritis pain.
Assistive devices. Using canes, walkers, raised toilet seats and other assistive devices can help protect your joints and improve your ability to perform daily tasks.
Many people use alternative remedies for arthritis, but there is little reliable evidence to support the use of many of these products. Some alternative remedies appear to reduce the symptoms of some types of arthritis but not others. The most promising alternative remedies for arthritis include:
Acupuncture. This therapy uses fine needles inserted at specific points on the skin to reduce many types of pain, including that caused by some types of arthritis.
Glucosamine. Although study results have been mixed, it now appears that glucosamine works no better than placebo. However, glucosamine and the placebo both relieved arthritis pain better than taking nothing, particularly in people who have moderate to severe pain.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Using a small device that produces mild electrical pulses, TENS therapy stimulates nerves near the aching joint and may interfere with the transmission of pain signals to the brain.
Yoga or tai chi. The slow, stretching movements associated with yoga and tai chi may help improve joint flexibility and range of motion in people with some types of arthritis.