From 2013 to 2015, about 22.7% of U.S. adults were diagnosed with some form of arthritis each year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this number is projected to increase as the population grows and ages. The CDC predicts 78 million, or 26%, of U.S. adults will be diagnosed with arthritis by 2040.
Although so many people are and will be affected by arthritis, it is not commonly understood. It is often thought of as a disease only affecting older adults. Anyone of any age can have arthritis, and it is never too early or too late to learn about it. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place! This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to better understand, watch out for, and manage arthritis.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is not a single disease like many people believe. It is a general term used to describe over 100 types of arthritis. Some symptoms all types of arthritis have in common include joint swelling, pain, stiffness, and decreased motion range. Still, other symptoms and the cause of the disease will vary depending on the type.
The symptoms experienced can range from mild to severe and may change or get worse over time. Severe arthritis can cause chronic pain and significantly impact your daily life, making it hard to walk or do other daily activities. Most arthritis cases occur in adults over 65, but anyone can be diagnosed, including teens and children.
Types of Arthritis
Some common types of arthritis you’d likely heard of before include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriatic arthritis
Throughout this guide, we will be addressing the two most common types of arthritis: osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
That said, there are over 100 types of arthritis! Most of them fall into four main categories based on the causes of the arthritis. These categories are degenerative, inflammatory, infectious, and metabolic.
Degenerative arthritis, often referred to as osteoarthritis, is the most common type of arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage -- the soft, spongy substance between the bones -- starts to deteriorate. As the cartilage wears away, the bones begin to rub against each other, which is painful and can cause swelling and stiffness.
This type of arthritis is common because it is most often caused by general wear and tear on the joint over time. Most often, osteoarthritis occurs in the hands, knees, hips, and spine. In addition to swelling, pain, stiffness, and decreased motion range, some other osteoarthritis symptoms include muscle weakness around the joints, deformed joints, cracking, and creaking.
Inflammatory arthritis, or autoimmune arthritis, occurs when the body’s immune system stops working correctly and begins attacking the joints. This causes the joint and areas around it to become uncontrollably inflamed and swollen. This inflammation can destroy cartilage and bone and may cause joint erosion. Other areas of the body, such as the skin, internal organs, may also become inflamed.
The most common form of inflammatory arthritis and the second most common type of arthritis, in general, is rheumatoid arthritis. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, also known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), is also the most common type of juvenile arthritis.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the synovial membrane or the joint capsule's lining explicitly. Over time, this can destroy cartilage and bone within the joint. In addition to swelling, pain, stiffness, and decreased motion range, other rheumatoid arthritis symptoms include fatigue and a loss of appetite.
Other inflammatory arthritis types include psoriatic arthritis, lupus, and gout. With inflammatory arthritis, it is imperative to get an early diagnosis and aggressive treatment to help prevent permanent joint damage.
Infectious arthritis is a sudden form of arthritis caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection entering the joint and causing inflammation. This occurs most often when an infection from another part of your body spreads through the blood to the joint. It may also arise directly through a puncture wound or surgery on or around the joint.
This type of arthritis usually affects one joint, typically the knee, but sometimes the hips, ankles, and wrists. Symptoms start suddenly and include intense swelling, pain, fever, and chills. In many cases, infectious arthritis can be cleared with antibiotics, but sometimes it can become chronic.
Metabolic arthritis is caused by high levels of uric acid in the body. The body cannot quickly use up such high levels, and the uric acid builds up, forming needle-like crystals on the joint. These crystals cause sudden, extreme pain in the joints, and if the uric acid levels are not reduced, the pain can become chronic.
Arthritis Risk Factors
As we’ve mentioned, anyone can suffer from arthritis. However, a few risk factors can make you more likely to be diagnosed with it. These risk factors include:
- Genetic predisposition: If someone in your immediate family has arthritis, you may be more likely to develop it. Your genetic makeup makes you more susceptible to environmental factors that can trigger the disorder. For example, for some people, smoking can trigger RA.
- Age: Arthritis is most common among people aged 65 and up. As you get older, you may be more prone to developing arthritis. This is especially true for OA, since it is often caused by wear and tear on the joints.
- Sex: Women are statistically more likely to develop arthritis. According to the CDC, from 2013 to 2015, 26% of women and 19.1% of men reported being diagnosed with arthritis.
- Previous joint injury: A previous injury, such as an ACL tear or an anterior cruciate ligament, can lead to OA in that joint.
- Obesity: According to the CDC, overweight or obese people report arthritis more often than those with a lower body mass index. Excess weight puts a strain on your joints, putting you at a higher risk of developing arthritis.
How to Prevent Arthritis
While many of the arthritis risk factors are out of your control, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk of arthritis. These include:
- Controlling your blood sugar: High blood sugar can make your joints more sensitive to stress by stiffening the tissue surrounding them.
- Exercising: Low-impact exercises like swimming and walking can help strengthen your muscles that support your knees and hips. Exercising can also help you stay at a healthy weight to keep the stress on your joints at a minimum.
- Stretching: This can improve your range of motion and help keep your joints flexible.
- Quitting smoking: Smoking strains tissues that support your joints.
- Eating fish twice a week: Fish high in omega-3s like salmon and trout can help reduce inflammation.
- Staying safe: Avoid arthritis-causing injury by wearing protective gear while playing sports and taking other safety precautions.
Early Signs of Arthritis
In many cases, it’s essential to be diagnosed with arthritis as soon as possible so that you can get the treatment you need. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience any of these early warning signs:
- Pain: One of the first signs of arthritis is joint pain. Arthritis pain can vary; some feel it frequently, while for others, it comes and goes. The pain may occur while at rest, moving, or after waking up in the morning, and it may be in one joint or in many different parts of the body. It’s normal to feel occasional joint pain, but consider talking to your doctor if the pain is consistent.
- Swelling: Some types of arthritis may cause the affected joint to become red and swollen. Be sure to visit the doctor if the swelling occurs for more than three days or more than three times a month.
- Stiffness: Stiff joints are often a telltale sign of arthritis. You may feel stiff after getting out of bed in the morning or after sitting in one position for too long. You may have arthritis if these moments of stiffness last longer than an hour.
- Difficulty moving a joint: If you have trouble doing everyday tasks that involve moving your joints (such as getting up out of a chair or walking upstairs), you may have arthritis.
If you experience any of these symptoms, keep track of them. Take note of what area of the body is affected, when, for how long, and what helps relieve the symptoms. If you’re experiencing other symptoms too, such as a rash or shortness of breath, note those also. Your doctor will use this information to determine if you have arthritis and, if so, what kind of arthritis it is.
If you have a fever or chest pain along with these symptoms, you may need to seek immediate medical care.
How is Arthritis Diagnosed?
To determine if you have arthritis and what type of arthritis you may have, your primary care doctor or a rheumatologist will do the following:
- Ask questions: To get a better idea of what you’re experiencing, the doctor will ask you about the symptoms you’re experiencing, your general health (such as if you’ve had an injury to a joint, etc.), your family’s history with arthritis and other related disorders, and your habits (smoking, sleep, exercise, etc.).
- Physical exam: The doctor will conduct a physical exam to check your joints for swelling, redness, or tenderness. They will also study how well you can move your joints. Depending on your answers to their questions and physical exam results, they may order tests or refer you to a specialist.
Some tests your doctor may order include:
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests such as x-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds can help the doctor check for inflammation, erosion, and other damage to the bones or cartilage.
- Blood, fluid, and tissue tests: These tests analyze your bodily fluid, such as blood and joint fluid, or your skin or muscle tissue to help determine which type of arthritis you may have.
- Nerve tests: Depending on your situation, your doctor may order a nerve test to determine if the nerves' electrical activity has been disrupted.
It can take time and multiple tests before you get a conclusive diagnosis. Since there are so many types of arthritis and other related conditions with similar symptoms, your doctor or rheumatologist has a lot to consider. Try to be patient during this process.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, there are a few treatment methods your doctor may suggest to help you manage your symptoms. This includes medication, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery.
Most commonly, medication is used to reduce pain and other symptoms. The medication recommended depends on your type of arthritis. Some medicine your doctor might recommend include:
- Painkillers: These relieve pain but do not reduce other symptoms such as inflammation. Your doctor might recommend over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol), or they might prescribe opioids for more severe pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can reduce both pain and inflammation.
- Counterirritant creams or ointments: Rubbing menthol or capsaicin creams or other ointments over the affected joint blocks the transmission of pain signals from the joint.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs): DMARDs are used mainly to treat RA. They slow or stop your immune system from attacking your joints, which can reduce inflammation and slow further joint damage.
- Biologics: These genetically engineered drugs target protein molecules involved in the immune response to counteract inflammatory signals. They are typically used in conjunction with DMARDs.
- Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids help to reduce inflammation and slow the immune system.
Physical therapy can help strengthen the muscles around the joints and improve the range of motion. It can also help you find ways to avoid putting stress on the affected joint, usually with the help of walking aids, splints, or braces.
Natural Pain Relief
Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend other natural pain relief forms, such as hot/cold therapy or TENS therapy. Some TENS garments are specifically made to treat pain in the hands, knees, or other joints! To learn more about TENS units and how they may help, check out our Ultimate Guide to TENS Units.
If all other forms of pain relief aren’t successful, your doctor may suggest surgery. Some possible suggestions include:
- Joint repair: Sometimes, pain can be relieved by smoothing or realigning the joint. This surgery may also help improve the functioning of the joint. In many cases, these types of procedures are minimally invasive.
- Joint replacement: This type of surgery replaces the affected joint with an artificial one. Usually, this surgery is done on the hips and knees.
- Joint fusion: If your arthritis affects smaller joints, such as your fingers or wrists, your doctor might suggest joint fusion surgery. This procedure involves two bones in your joint; the ends of the bones are locked together, and when they heal, they become one stable unit.
Self Managing Your Arthritis
In addition to medical treatments, there are many things you can do to self-manage your arthritis symptoms. Making healthy choices can make a huge difference in how you experience the effects of the disorder. But learning all of the things you can do can often be overwhelming. We’ve compiled a list to help you get started.
Get a Good Night's Sleep
According to the Arthritis Foundation, 80% of people with arthritis have difficulty sleeping. Pain and other factors, like stress, can make it hard to sleep, but a lack of sleep can worsen your pain.
To get a better night’s sleep, keep a regular sleep schedule, limit caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids before bed, and get off digital devices an hour or two before trying to sleep. It may also help to talk to your doctor to pinpoint what keeps you from sleeping well; they might recommend therapy to combat stress or sleep medication.
Exercising during the day is another way to help you sleep soundly. Still, it can also help manage arthritis pain in general! Exercise can strengthen your muscles to support your joints better, keep joints active, reduce stress, and help you lose weight that may strain your joints.
Rest When You Need To
While it’s essential to exercise regularly and keep up a normal lifestyle, it’s also important to rest when your arthritis is active and causing a lot of pain. Take breaks when you need to and lighten your obligations by prioritizing essential activities and responsibilities.
Eat a Balanced Diet
Eating a balanced diet can also help manage symptoms. It can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and help lose weight that may strain your joints.
Here are some key foods that are good for arthritis:
Fish: Fish like salmon and tuna contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. Additionally, fish oil supplements can help reduce joint stiffness, tenderness, pain, and swelling.
Nuts and seeds: Nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, have monounsaturated fat that can help fight inflammation.
Fruits and veggies: Fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries, cherries, spinach, kale, and broccoli, are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help neutralize unstable molecules that can damage cells. Additionally, fruits rich in vitamin C (like oranges and grapefruits) can help prevent inflammatory arthritis. Veggies rich in vitamin K (like broccoli and cabbage) can reduce inflammatory markers in the blood.
Olive oil: Olive oil contains heart-healthy fats that can help reduce inflammation and reduce pain sensitivity.
Beans: Beans like kidney beans and pinto beans are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Beans are also rich in fiber and phytonutrients, which reduce inflammation markers in the blood and protein, which is good for muscle health.
Whole grains: Eating food made with whole grains can reduce inflammation and help you maintain a healthy weight.
On the other hand, some foods may increase inflammation and trigger an arthritis flare. Here are some worst foods for arthritis:
Added sugars: Foods with added sugars, such as candy and ice cream, have been found to worsen RA symptoms.
Processed and red meat: Processed and red meat can increase inflammation and other arthritis symptoms. They demonstrate high levels of inflammatory markers, such as CRP.
Processed foods: Highly processed foods like fast food and breakfast cereal can not only harm your health and weight but are rich in inflammatory ingredients that worsen arthritis symptoms.
Alcohol: Alcohol can increase arthritis symptoms, especially for those with inflammatory arthritis such as RA and gout.
Some vegetable oils: Vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3 fats, worsening OA, and RA symptoms.
Foods high in sodium: High-sodium foods like sugar and canned soup may make arthritis more severe and may put you more at risk for RA.
Foods high in AGEs: Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are found in foods like french fries, American cheese, bacon, boiled hot dogs, and mayonnaise. A build-up of AGEs in the body can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, which is linked to the progression of arthritis.
What Causes Arthritis Flare-Ups?
An arthritis flare is a period when the disease is more active, and symptoms worsen. Sometimes, during flares, it seems like medication and other methods of managing the arthritis don’t seem to be working. This can make all aspects of everyday living much harder.
The reason these flares occur varies by disease. We’ll walk you through the triggers for both OA and RA flares.
Osteoarthritis Flare Triggers
Because osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, it can be hard to tell if periods of worsening symptoms are a flare or disease progression. Be sure to talk to your doctor if a flare seems to be lasting longer than usual.
Some common triggers for OA flare-ups include:
- Overdoing an activity
- Joint trauma
- Bone spurs
- Repetitive motion
- Cold weather
- A change in barometric pressure
- Weight gain
Rheumatoid arthritis Flare Triggers
RA flares can vary in intensity, duration, and frequency because they are caused by natural changes in what drives inflammation in the body. If treated in time, though, these flares can be reversed.
Is there a Cure for Arthritis?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis. The main goal of treatment is to minimize pain, inflammation, and other symptoms. In the case of inflammatory arthritis, if you start treating the disease immediately, you can go into remission. The key is to begin treatment as soon as you’re diagnosed and to stick to your treatment plan once you find what works for you.
What Experts Say About Managing Arthritis
Arthritis is a condition that can be difficult to handle. We reached out to various physical therapists, medical advisors, doctors, and more to get their feedback, expert opinion, and ways they help their patients overcome arthritis.
"Low-impact aerobic exercises are an excellent choice for people with arthritis. They don't stress the joints while providing enough activity for managing arthritis pain and your overall health. Consider taking yoga classes or do stretches to protect your range of motion."
Tsao-Lin E. Moy, L.Ac., MSOM
Certified in Sports Medicine Acupuncture ® , Fertility Specialist, Anti-aging and Sexual Energy Healing
"Addressing arthritis works best with an integrative approach, looking at sleep, diet, exercise, stress levels, and underlying health conditions that continue to perpetuate inflammation that sets up in the joints will keep recurring."
"The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), should be discouraged in favor of the aforementioned conservative options. In addition to complications from their use (e.g. gastrointestinal problems), NSAIDs may actually accelerate the progression of osteoarthritis in certain joints, for example the hip."
"I am a huge advocate of doing what you do but differently. So when you are sitting down watching your favorite Netflix series why not try squeezing your bottom cheeks together wherever you see the lead character! If you are walking to the toilet why not try walking backwards (be safe) or when on the toilet why not twist the opposite way to normal to wipe!!"
"There are three primary food-types that should be avoided or reduced in the RA patient's diet; refined carbs and sugar, gluten, , and preservatives. Refined carbs and gluten are both highly inflammatory and can both trigger an arthritis flare or exacerbate the pain of a current flare up."
"By replacing these with unprocessed whole foods the RA patient can better mitigate their symptoms and reduce the likelihood of flare ups."
"Quite simply one of the best ways to treat stiff arthritic joints is to keep them moving. Spending all day sitting or standing in one position is about the worst thing you can do for arthritis. Keeping the body active helps move the "joint juice" or synovial fluid in the joint. This fluid helps keep motions smooth and prevents structures from "sticking."
"Sometimes if it’s a single joint that’s affected, a simple shot of steroid steroid plus a numbing agent or even things like platelet rich plasma injections may be options. It’s always essential to speak with your physician or provider about all the options the risks and benefits of each and individualized therapy to meet your needs."
"Icing inflamed joints or applying a hot pack can also help reduce the associated discomfort. You may also find that massage and exercise help to relieve arthritis pain, talk to your doctor about creating a workout and massage routine that works for you."
"My best advice is to keep the body strong by dedicating time each day to exercise and resistance training. If this seems too painful and difficult, enlist a physical therapist to gradually increase your exercise progression."
"Poor posture is the leading underlying cause as well as aggravating cause of many daily damages."
"Arthritic pain can be greatly improved with acupuncture care. By increasing the circulation of blood and reducing inflammation, acupuncture causes a relaxation in achy joints."
About the Author
Stephanie Schwarten is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelors degree in Professional Writing. She specializes in content marketing as well as both developmental and copy editing.
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