Last Updated: April 4, 2013
"Arthritis" is not just a word doctors use when they talk about
painful, stiff joints. In fact, there are many kinds of arthritis,
each with different symptoms and treatments. Most types of
arthritis are chronic. That means they can go on for a long period
Arthritis can attack joints in almost any part of the body. Some
forms of arthritis cause changes you can see and feel-swelling,
warmth, and redness in your joints. In some the pain and swelling
last only a short time, but are very bad. Other types cause less
troublesome symptoms, but still slowly damage your joints.
Common Kinds of Arthritis
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 anautoimmunedisease. 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
becomeinflamed-painful, red, and swollen. RA leads toinflammationin
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 women.
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,
Goutis 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).
You might have some form of arthritis if you have:
- Lasting joint pain,
- Joint swelling,
- Joint stiffness,
- Tenderness or pain when touching a joint,
- Problems using or moving a joint normally, or
- Warmth and redness in a joint.
If any one of these symptoms lasts longer than 2 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 U.S. 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. You can also check
with the FDA for more information about these drugs.
Some treatments are special for each common type of
Osteoarthritis. 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.
Rheumatoid Arthritis. 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.
Gout. 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
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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, lessens pain, and makes muscles
around the joints stronger.
Three types of exercise are best if you have arthritis:
- Range-of-motionexercises, like dancing, relieve stiffness, keep
you flexible, and help you keep moving your joints.
- Strengtheningexercises, such as weight training, will keep or
add to muscle strength. Strong muscles support and protect your
- Aerobic or enduranceexercises, like bicycle riding, make your
heart and arteries healthier, help prevent weight gain, and improve
the overall working of your body. Aerobic exercise also may lessen
swelling in some joints.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has a free 80-page booklet
on how to start and stick with a safe exercise program. The
Institute also has a 48-minute companion video. See the last panel
of thisAge Pagefor more information. Before beginning any exercise
program, talk with your doctor or health care worker.
Other Things to Do
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.
Many people with arthritis try remedies that have not been
tested or proven helpful. Some of these, such as snake venom, are
harmful. Others, such as copper bracelets, are harmless, but also
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, or
- The label has no directions for use or warning about side
Areas for Further Research
Recent studies suggest that Chinese acupuncture may ease OA pain
for some people. Others try dietary supplements, such as
glucosamine and chondroitin. Research now shows that these two
dietary supplements may help lessen your OA pain. Scientists are
studying alternative treatments, such as these two supplements, to
find out how they work and if they keep the joint changes caused by
arthritis from getting worse. More information is needed before
anyone can be sure.
Talk to Your Doctor
Most importantly, do not take for granted that your pain and
arthritis are just part of growing older normally. You and your
doctor can work together to safely lessen the pain and stiffness
that might be troubling you and to prevent more serious damage to
For More Arthritis Information
Here are some helpful Federal and non-Federal resources.
NationalCenter 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
Source: National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov (Original