Rather than a single disease, arthritis is an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. Common arthritis joint symptoms include swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Symptoms may come and go, and be mild, moderate or severe. They may stay about the same for years, but may progress or get worse over time.
Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities and difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Arthritis can cause permanent joint changes. These changes may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the damage can only be seen on an X-ray. Some types of arthritis also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys and skin as well as the joints.
Common types of arthritis include:
- Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, where the cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away and 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 (an anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tear, for example). Maintain a healthy weight to help prevent Osteoarthritis.
- Inflammatory arthritis, where the immune system can go awry, mistakenly attacking the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion and possibly damaging internal organs, eyes and other parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of inflammatory arthritis. Smoking is an example of an environmental risk factor that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people with certain genes. Early diagnosis and aggressive treatment is critical. Tip: Do not smoke.
- Infectious Arthritis, whereby a bacterium, virus or fungus enter the joint and trigger inflammation. This includes 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.
- Metabolic Arthritis, where uric acid forms 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, can become chronic, causing ongoing pain and disability. Eating a healthful diet, low in sugar, alcohol and purines, will help prevent Metabolic Arthritis.
Treatment for arthritis can include medication (prescription, over-the-counter and natural therapies), diet, exercise and joint surgery.