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With good information and treatment, the symptoms of arthritis can be managed.
The word arthritis literally means "joint inflammation." However, arthritis is often used as an umbrella term to refer to more than 100 different rheumatic diseases that can cause pain, stiffness and swelling in many parts of the body.
The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis mainly affects the hips, knees, feet, spine and hands. In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis can affect not only the joints but also the skin, lungs, heart, eyes and other organs. It is one of the most disabling forms of arthritis.
Growing older is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis; most of those diagnosed with the disease are middle-aged or older. In addition, being overweight increases the risk of osteoarthritis in large, weight-bearing joints, such as the knees.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men, according to the Arthritis Foundation. In women, rheumatoid arthritis usually starts between the ages of 30 and 60. It often occurs later in life for men. But even older teens and people in their 20s can get rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms include swelling in one or more joints; morning stiffness that lasts for more than 30 minutes; trouble moving in a normal way; redness or warmth in a joint; and weight loss, fever or fatigue.
See your doctor soon after symptoms begin. The earlier you start treatment, the better.
Chances are your doctor will take your medical history, review the medications you are currently taking, do a physical exam, take blood samples and/or urine samples, and ask you to get x-rays taken or undergo other imaging tests, such as a CT scan.
If you are diagnosed with arthritis, your doctor will design a treatment plan to help you manage the disease.
Often, a team of healthcare professionals helps care for those with arthritis. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be treated by your personal doctor, a rheumatologist (a doctor specializing in arthritis), an orthopedic surgeon, or a physical or occupational therapist.
Treatments include medication, a comfortable balance of rest and exercise, assistive devices (such as braces or splints), and—when symptoms are severe—surgery.
Some of the most widely used drugs are sold without a prescription. Because people with osteoarthritis have very little inflammation, pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be effective. Those with rheumatoid arthritis generally benefit from aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), reports the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Prescription drugs are also available to help treat arthritis.
Talk to your doctor. Aspirin and other NSAIDs can cause stomach upset and even ulcers. However, there are several ways to ease these side effects. One option is to switch to a type of NSAID called a COX-2 inhibitor that is safer for the stomach.
NSAIDs can increase the risk of heart problems and stroke, especially when used for long periods of time. Ask your doctor what's right for you.
Corticosteroids are very powerful inflammation-fighting drugs. They can be taken either by mouth or injection. Prednisone is the corticosteroid most often given by mouth to reduce the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis.
When treating both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, a doctor may inject a corticosteroid directly into a joint to ease pain.
Not necessarily. Effective treatment of arthritis requires finding the right balance between rest and activity. Rest is important when a joint aches or you feel tired. However, too much rest may cause muscles and joints to become stiffer.
Regular exercise can help reduce joint pain and stiffness and increase muscle strength and flexibility. If you're overweight, physical activity can also help you drop pounds and reduce stress on weight-bearing joints.
Talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program; he or she will recommend those activities most beneficial for you. In all likelihood, the program your doctor suggests will include three types of exercise: range-of-motion exercises, strengthening exercises and low-impact aerobic (endurance) exercises.
The decision to use either heat or cold for arthritis pain depends on the type of arthritis you have and should be discussed with your doctor. Depending on your situation, your doctor may advise moist heat (such as a warm bath or shower), a heating pad placed on the painful area for about 15 minutes, or an ice pack wrapped in a towel and placed on the painful area for about 15 minutes. If you have poor circulation, don't use ice packs.
Lightly stroking or kneading a painful muscle may increase blood flow and bring warmth to a stressed area. However, make sure you see a massage therapist who is familiar with the special needs of someone with arthritis. Arthritis-stressed joints are very sensitive.
You may need surgery if damage to a joint becomes disabling or if other treatments fail to control the pain. Options include synovectomy (removing the tissue that lines the joints), osteotomy (realignment of the joint) or, in advanced cases, replacing the damaged joint with an artificial one.
To learn more about arthritis, visit the Arthritis health topic center. You can also learn more at these websites:
- The Arthritis Foundation.
- The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.