What is arthritis?

Arthritis, or “joint inflammation,” is a general term for a group of more than 100 diseases. Arthritis is inflammation (swelling) in and around the body’s joints. (A joint is a point at which two or more bones come together, such as the hip or the knee.)

Inflammation is one of the body’s natural responses to disease or injury. Inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling, as well as loss of movement in some patients. Some types of arthritis include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Different types of arthritis have different symptoms, which can be mild in some people and very strong in others. Osteoarthritis usually does not cause any symptoms outside the joint.

Symptoms of other types of arthritis might include fatigue (feeling tired), fever, a rash, and the signs of joint inflammation, including:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Tenderness
  • Redness
  • Warmth

What causes arthritis?

The causes of most types of arthritis are not known. Scientists are studying how three major factors may play a role in certain types of arthritis:

  • Genetic (inherited) factors (“runs in the family”)
  • What happened during a person’s lifetime
  • The person’s current lifestyle

Although the exact causes of arthritis might not be known, there are several risk factors. A risk factor is a something that increases a person’s chance of developing a disease or condition. Risk factors for arthritis include:

  • Age — The risk of developing arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, increases with age.
  • Gender — In general, arthritis occurs more often in women than in men.
  • Weight — Being overweight puts extra stress on the joints that support a person’s weight. This increases wear and tear, and the risk of arthritis.
  • Work factors — Jobs in which the worker has to keep doing the same movements over and over, or does a great deal of heavy lifting, can cause stress in the joints and/or an injury, which can lead to arthritis.

The pain of arthritis might be caused by different things, including inflammation of the synovial membrane (tissue that lines the joints), tendons, or ligaments; muscle strain; and fatigue. A combination of these factors can have an effect on how strong the pain is.

The pain of arthritis can be very different for each person. Things that contribute to the pain include the amount of damage and swelling within the joint.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

To diagnose arthritis, a doctor will take a medical history and ask questions about the patient’s pain. The doctor will do a physical examination to find the causes of pain and how this pain is affecting the patient’s ability to function.

The patient might have X-rays or other imaging procedures such as a CT scan (computerized tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to see how much joint damage there is. The patient may also see several different specialists.

How is arthritis treated?

Treatment of arthritis will depend on the type of arthritis, how strong the pain is, and the patient’s overall health. The goal is to treat all aspects of arthritis pain, increase joint mobility (movement) and strength, and help patients learn to manage pain.

Treatment options include medicine, exercise, heat/cold, use of joint protection, and surgery. Treatment plans might include more than one of these treatments.

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