Achy Knees? Joint Pain? What You Need To Know About Arthritis

 

Maybe it starts with stiffness in the morning when you wake up, or you notice your hands are aching as the weather turns colder. Knees giving you some trouble, or your shoulder hurting when you lift heavy bags or objects? Age catches up to all of us eventually, but if you’re experiencing stiffness or swelling in your hands and joints, and a decreased range of motion you may be suffering from common arthritis symptoms.

If so, you’re in good company: More than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. It is most common among women and occurs more frequently as people get older.

Common arthritis joint symptoms can come and go. They can be mild, moderate, or severe. They may stay about the same for years, or may progress or get worse over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities, and make it difficult to walk or climb stairs. Arthritis also can cause permanent joint changes. These changes may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the damage can only be seen on X-rays. Some types of arthritis also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys, and skin as well as the joints.

Arthritis is not a single disease — it is an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. People of all ages, sexes and races can and do have arthritis, and it is the leading cause of disability in America.

Every year, arthritis and related conditions account for:

  • More than $156 billion annually in lost wages and medical expenses
  • More than 100 million outpatient visits
  • An estimated 6.7 million hospitalizations

There are different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. When cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away, bone rubs against bone, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness.  Over time, joints can lose strength and pain may become chronic. Risk factors include excess weight, family history, age, and previous injury.

Arthritis can also be degenerative. A healthy immune system helps protect us. It generates internal inflammation to get rid of infection and prevent disease. But the immune system can mistakenly attack the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion, and may damage internal organs, eyes, and other parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of inflammatory arthritis. Researchers believe that a combination of genetics and environmental factors can trigger autoimmunity. Smoking is an example of an environmental risk factor that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people with certain genes.

With autoimmune and inflammatory types of arthritis, early diagnosis and aggressive treatment is critical. Slowing disease activity can help minimize or even prevent permanent joint damage. Remission is the goal and may be achieved through the use of one or more medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function, and prevent further joint damage.

Other types of arthritis include infectious and metabolic. A bacterium, virus, or fungus can enter the joint and trigger inflammation. Examples of organisms that can infect joints are salmonella and shigella (food poisoning or contamination), chlamydia and gonorrhea (sexually transmitted diseases) and hepatitis C (a blood-to-blood infection, often through shared needles or transfusions). In many cases, timely treatment with antibiotics may clear the joint infection, but sometimes the arthritis becomes chronic.

With metabolic arthritis, uric acid is formed as the body breaks down purines, a substance found in human cells and in many foods. Some people have high levels of uric acid because they naturally produce more than is needed or the body can’t get rid of the uric acid quickly enough. In some people, the uric acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joint, resulting in sudden spikes of extreme joint pain, or a gout attack. Gout can come and go in episodes or, if uric acid levels aren’t reduced, it can become chronic, causing ongoing pain and disability.

Diagnosing and controlling arthritis

Arthritis diagnosis often begins with a primary care physician, who performs a physical exam and may do blood tests and imaging scans to help determine the type of arthritis. An arthritis specialist, or rheumatologist, should be involved if the diagnosis is uncertain or if the arthritis may be inflammatory. Rheumatologists typically manage ongoing treatment for inflammatory arthritis, gout, and other complicated cases. Orthopaedic surgeons do joint surgery, including joint replacements. When the arthritis affects other body systems or parts, other specialists, such as ophthalmologists, dermatologists or dentists, may also be included in the health care team.

When the joint symptoms of osteoarthritis are mild or moderate, they can be managed by:

  • Balancing activity with rest
  • Using hot and cold therapies
  • Regular physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Strengthening the muscles around the joint for added support
  • Using assistive devices
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines
  • Avoiding excessive repetitive movements

If joint symptoms are severe, causing limited mobility and affecting quality of life, management strategies may be helpful, but joint replacement may be necessary. Osteoarthritis that isn’t genetic may be reduced or prevented by staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding injury and repetitive movements. As a general prescription, focusing on healthy eating and exercise remains the best course for limiting the onset of arthritis and for helping you control symptoms now or down the road.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!