Last Updated: April 9,
Most people commonly think of arthritis as the condition of
having painful, stiff joints. In fact, there are many kinds of
arthritis, each with different symptoms and treatments. Most types
of arthritis are chronic with symptoms lasting years.
Arthritis can attack joints in almost any part of the body. Some
forms of arthritis cause changes you can see and feel such as pain,
swelling, warmth and redness in your joints. Other types cause less
troublesome symptoms, but slowly damage your joints.
Arthritis is one of the most common diseases in this country.
Millions of adults and half of all people age 65 and older are
troubled by this disease. Older people most often have
osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis in
older people. OA starts when cartilage begins to become ragged and
wears away. Cartilage is the tissue that pads bones in a joint. At
OA's worst, all of the cartilage in a joint wears away, leaving
bones that rub against each other. You are most likely to have OA
in your hands, neck, lower back, or the large weight-bearing joints
of your body, such as knees and hips.
OA symptoms can range from stiffness and mild pain that comes
and goes with activities like walking, bending, or stooping to
severe joint pain that keeps on even when you rest or try to sleep.
Sometimes OA causes your joints to feel stiff when you haven't
moved them in a while, like after riding in the car. But the
stiffness goes away when you move the joint. In time OA can also
cause problems moving joints and sometimes disability if your back,
knees, or hips are affected.
What causes OA? Growing older is what most often puts you at
risk for OA. Other than that, scientists think the cause depends on
which part of the body is involved. For example, OA in the hands or
hips may run in families. OA in the knees can be linked with being
overweight. Injuries or overuse may cause OA in joints such as
knees, hips, or hands.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. In RA, that
means your body attacks the lining of a joint just as it would if
it were trying to protect you from injury or disease. For example,
if you had a splinter in your finger, the finger would become
inflamed-painful, red, and swollen. RA leads to inflammationin your
joints. This inflammation causes pain, swelling, and stiffness that
lasts for hours. This can often happen in many different joints at
the same time. You might not even be able to move the joint. People
with RA often don't feel well. They may be tired or run a fever.
People of any age can develop RA, and it is more common in
RA can attack almost any joint in the body, including the joints
in the fingers, wrists, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, feet,
and neck. If you have RA in a joint on one side of the body, the
same joint on the other side of your body will probably have RA
also. RA not only destroys joints. It can also attack organs such
as the heart, muscles, blood vessels, nervous system, and eyes.
Gout is one of the most painful forms of arthritis. An attack
can begin when crystals of uric acid form in the connective tissue
and/or joint spaces. These deposits lead to swelling, redness,
heat, pain, and stiffness in the joint. Gout attacks often follow
eating foods like shellfish, liver, dried beans, peas, anchovies,
or gravy. Using alcohol, being overweight, and certain medications
may also make gout worse. In older people, some blood pressure
medicines can also increase your chance of a gout attack.
Gout is most often a problem in the big toe, but it can affect
other joints, including your ankle, elbow, knee, wrist, hand, or
other toes. Swelling may cause the skin to pull tightly around the
joint and make the area red or purple and very tender. Your doctor
might suggest blood tests and x-rays. He or she might also take a
sample of fluid from your joint while you are having an attack.
Other forms of arthritis include psoriatic arthritis (in people
with the skin condition psoriasis), ankylosing spondylitis (which
mostly affects the spine), reactive arthritis (arthritis that
occurs as a reaction to another illness in the body), and arthritis
in the temporomandibular joint (where the jaw joins the skull).
Common symptoms include:
- Lasting joint pain
- Joint swelling
- Joint stiffness
- Tenderness or pain when touching a joint
- Problems using or moving a joint normally
- Warmth and redness in a joint
If any of these symptoms lasts longer than two weeks, see your
regular doctor or a rheumatologist. If you have a fever, feel
physically ill, suddenly have a swollen joint, or have problems
using your joint, see your doctor sooner. Your health care provider
will ask questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam. He
or she may take x-rays or do lab tests before suggesting a
Each kind of arthritis is handled a little differently, but
there are some common treatment choices. Rest, exercise, eating a
healthy, well-balanced diet, and learning the right way to use and
protect your joints are key to living with any kind of arthritis.
The right shoes and a cane can help with pain in the feet, knees,
and hips when walking. You can also find gadgets to help you open
jars and bottles or to turn the door knobs in your house more
In addition, there are also medicines that can help with the
pain and swelling. Acetaminophen can safely ease arthritis pain.
Some NSAIDs (nonsteroidalanti-inflammatorydrugs), like ibuprofen
and naproxen, are sold without a prescription. Other NSAIDs must be
prescribed by a doctor. But in 2005, the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) warned people about the possible side effects
of some NSAIDs, both those sold with or without a prescription. You
should read the warnings on the package or insert that comes with
the drug. Talk to your doctor about if and how you should use
acetaminophen or NSAIDs for your arthritis pain.
Medicines can help you control OA pain. Rest and exercise will
make it easier for you to move your joints. Keeping your weight
down is a good idea. If pain from OA in your knee is very bad, your
doctor might give you shots in the joint. This can help you to move
your knee and get about without pain. Some people have surgery to
repair or replace damaged joints.
With treatment, the pain and swelling from RA will get better, and
joint damage might slow down or stop. You may find it easier to
move around, and you will just feel better. In addition to pain and
anti-inflammatory medicines, your doctor might suggest
anti-rheumatic drugs, called DMARDs
(disease-modifyingantirheumaticdrugs). These can slow damage from
the disease. Medicines like prednisone, known as corticosteroids,
can ease swelling while you wait for DMARDs to take effect. Another
type of drug, biologic response modifiers, blocks the damage done
by the immune system. They sometimes help people with
mild-to-moderate RA when other treatments have not worked.
If you have had an attack of gout, talk to your doctor to learn
why you had the attack and how to prevent future attacks. The most
common treatment for an acute attack of gout uses NSAIDs or
corticosteroids like prednisone. This reduces swelling, so you may
start to feel better within a few hours after treatment. The attack
usually goes away fully within a few days. If you have had several
attacks, your doctor can prescribe medicines to prevent future
Exercise Can Help
Along with taking the right medicine and properly resting your
joints, exercise is a good way to stay fit, keep muscles strong,
and control arthritis symptoms. Daily exercise, such as walking or
swimming, helps keep joints moving, decreases pain, and makes
muscles around the joints stronger.
Exercises: Dancing and yoga both
relieve stiffness, keep you flexible, and help you keep moving your
Exercises: Weight training will keep or
build muscle strength. Strong muscles support and protect your
- Aerobic and Endurance
Bicycle riding and running make your heart and arteries
healthier, help prevent weight gain, and improve the overall
working of your body. Aerobic exercise also may decrease swelling
in some joints.
Along with exercise and weight control, there are other ways to
ease the pain around joints. You might find comfort by applying
heat or cold, soaking in a warm bath, or swimming in a heated
Your doctor may suggest surgery when damage to your joints
becomes disabling or when other treatments do not help with pain.
Surgeons can repair or replace these joints with artificial
(man-made) ones. In the most common operations, doctors replace
hips and knees.
Recent studies suggest that Chinese acupuncture may ease OA pain
for some people. Research now shows that the dietary supplements
glucosamine and chondroitin may help lessen your OA pain. However,
more information is needed before anyone can be sure.
Many people with arthritis try remedies that have not been
scientifically tested or proven helpful. Some remedies, such as
snake venom, are harmful. Others, such as copper bracelets, are
harmless, but also unproven.
How can you tell that a remedy may be unproven?
- The remedy claims that a treatment, like a lotion or cream,
works for all types of arthritis and other diseases.
- Scientific support comes from only one research study.
- The label has no directions for use or warning about side
For More Arthritis Information
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD 20898
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin
NIAMS Information Clearinghouse
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
877-22-NIAMS (877-226-4267, toll-free)
American College of Rheumatology/Association of Rheumatology
1800 Century Place
Atlanta, GA 30345-4300
P.O. Box 7669
Atlanta, GA 30357-0669
or check the telephone directory for your local chapter