- Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints.
- Symptoms of arthritis include pain and limited function of joints.
- Arthritis sufferers include men and women, children and adults.
- A rheumatologist is a medical arthritis expert.
- Earlier and accurate diagnosis can help to prevent irreversible damage and disability.
What is arthritis? What causes arthritis?
Arthritis is a joint disorder featuring inflammation. A joint is an area of the body where two different bones meet. A joint functions to move the body parts connected by its bones. Arthritis literally means inflammation of one or more joints.
Arthritis is frequently accompanied by joint pain. Joint pain is referred to as arthralgia.
There are many types of arthritis (over 100 identified, and the number is growing). The types range from those related to wear and tear of cartilage (such as osteoarthritis) to those associated with inflammation resulting from an overactive immune system (such as rheumatoid arthritis). Together, the many types of arthritis make up the most common chronic illness in the United States.
The causes of arthritis depend on the form of arthritis. Causes include injury (leading to osteoarthritis), metabolic abnormalities (such as gout and pseudogout), hereditary factors, the direct and indirect effect of infections (bacterial and viral), and a misdirected immune system with autoimmunity (such as in rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus).
Arthritis is classified as one of the rheumatic diseases. These are conditions that are different individual illnesses, with differing features, treatments, complications, and prognoses. They are similar in that they have a tendency to affect the joints, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, and tendons, and many have the potential to affect other internal body areas.
What are risk factors for arthritis?
The major risk factors for most forms of arthritis are genes that are inherited from ancestors. Trauma-related arthritis is related to the risk of injury from specific activities.
What are arthritis symptoms and signs?
Symptoms of arthritis include pain and limited function of joints. Inflammation of the joints from arthritis is characterized by joint stiffness, swelling, redness, and warmth. Tenderness of the inflamed joint can be present.
Many of the forms of arthritis, because they are rheumatic diseases, can cause symptoms affecting various organs of the body that do not directly involve the joints. Therefore, symptoms in some patients with certain forms of arthritis can also include fever, gland swelling (swollen lymph nodes), weight loss, fatigue, feeling unwell, and even symptoms from abnormalities of organs such as the lungs, heart, or kidneys.
Who is affected by arthritis?
Arthritis sufferers include men and women, children and adults.
How is arthritis diagnosed, and why is a diagnosis important?
The first step in the diagnosis of arthritis is a meeting between the doctor and the patient. The doctor will review the history of symptoms, examine the joints for inflammation and deformity, as well as ask questions about or examine other parts of the body for inflammation or signs of diseases that can affect other body areas. Furthermore, certain blood, urine, joint fluid, and/or X-ray tests might be ordered. The diagnosis will be based on the pattern of symptoms, the distribution of the inflamed joints, and any blood and X-ray findings. Several visits may be necessary before the doctor can be certain of the diagnosis. A doctor with special training in arthritis and related diseases is called a rheumatologist (see below).
Many forms of arthritis are more of an annoyance than serious. However, millions of people suffer daily with pain and disability from arthritis or its complications.
Earlier and accurate diagnosis can help to prevent irreversible damage and disability. Properly guided programs of exercise and rest, medications, physical therapy, and surgery options can idealize long-term outcomes for those with arthritis.
It should be noted that both before and especially after the diagnosis of arthritis, communication with the treating doctor is essential for optimal health. This is important from the standpoint of the doctor, so that he/she can be aware of the vagaries of the patient’s symptoms as well as their tolerance of and acceptance of treatments. It is important from the standpoint of patients, so that they can be assured that they have an understanding of the diagnosis and how the condition does and might affect them. It is also crucial for the safe use of medications.
What is the treatment for arthritis?
The treatment of arthritis is very dependent on the precise type of arthritis present. An accurate diagnosis increases the chances for successful treatment. Treatments available include physical therapy, splinting, cold-pack application, paraffin wax dips, anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications (ranging from acetaminophen [Tylenol] to narcotics), immune-altering medications, and surgical operations. For treatments of particular forms of arthritis, see the corresponding articles for the form of arthritis of interest.
Is there a special diet for arthritis?
For most forms of arthritis, diets play little or no role in precipitating or exacerbating the condition. However, in general, oils of fish have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Some arthritis suffers benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
Gout is a particular type of arthritis that is clearly diet-related. Foods that are high in purines, especially red meats and shellfish, can worsen the condition. Moreover, certain foods elevate the levels of uric acid, including alcohol (especially beer) and those foods containing high amounts of fructose (such as the corn syrup found in soft drinks). For people with celiac disease, gluten-containing foods (wheat, barley, rye) can worsen joint pains.
What are the prognosis (outlook) for arthritis, and what are arthritis complications?
The outlook for patients with arthritis depends on its severity, complications, and whether or not there are non-joint manifestations of the disease. For example, rheumatoid arthritis can affect the lungs, kidneys, eyes, etc. Chronic joint inflammation can lead to permanent damage to the joint and loss of joint function, making movement difficult or impossible.
Can arthritis be prevented?
Since most forms of arthritis are inherited to some degree, there is no real way to prevent them. Arthritis that follows joint injury could be prevented by adhering to safety regulations and trying to avoid becoming injured. Arthritis related to infection (for examples, septic arthritis, reactive arthritis, Whipple’s disease) could be prevented by not becoming infected with the causative organism. The extent to which this is possible varies depending upon the individual condition.
What is a rheumatologist?
A rheumatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the nonsurgical treatment of rheumatic illnesses, especially arthritis.
Rheumatologists have special interests in unexplained rash, fever, arthritis, anemia, weakness, weight loss, fatigue, joint or muscle pain, autoimmune disease, and anorexia. They often serve as consultants, acting like medical detectives at the request of other doctors.
Rheumatologists have particular skills in the evaluation of the over 100 forms of arthritis and have special interests in rheumatoid arthritis, spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, antiphospholipid syndrome, Still’s disease, dermatomyositis, Sjögren’s syndrome, vasculitis, scleroderma, mixed connective tissue disease, sarcoidosis, Lyme disease, osteomyelitis, osteoarthritis, back pain, gout, pseudogout, relapsing polychondritis, Henoch-Schonlein purpura, serum sickness, reactive arthritis, Kawasaki disease, fibromyalgia, erythromelalgia, Raynaud’s disease, growing pains, iritis, osteoporosis, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and others.
Classical adult rheumatology training includes four years of medical school, one year of internship in internal medicine, two years of internal-medicine residency, and two years of rheumatology fellowship. There is a subspecialty board for rheumatology certification, offered by the American Board of Internal Medicine, which can provide board certification to approved rheumatologists.
Pediatric rheumatologists are physicians who specialize in providing comprehensive care to children (as well as their families) with rheumatic diseases, especially arthritis.
Pediatric rheumatologists are pediatricians who have completed an additional two to three years of specialized training in pediatric rheumatology and are usually board-certified in pediatric rheumatology.
What is the Arthritis Foundation?
The Arthritis Foundation is the only national voluntary health organization whose purpose is directed solely to all forms of arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation has national and international programs involving support for scientific research, public information and education for affected patients and their families, training of specialists, public awareness, and local community assistance.
Local branch chapters of the Arthritis Foundation serve to disseminate information about arthritis and rheumatic diseases, as well as function as referral centers. Moreover, many of the various forms of arthritis have their own foundations that serve as information and referral resources for local communities.
It is the ultimate goal of scientific arthritis research that optimal treatment programs are designed for each of the many form of arthritis. This field will continue to evolve as improvements develop in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and related conditions.
Medically reviewed by Kirkwood Johnston, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Rheumatology
Medical Author: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
“Arthritis Prevalence: A Nation in Pain.” Arthritis Foundation.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/16/2014
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