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May Is National Arthritis Awareness Month: What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a widespread disease. It affects more than 54 million Americans—one in five adults and 300,000 children—making it the number one cause of disability in the nation. There are 1 million hospitalizations each year due to arthritis, and one-third of all sufferers also experience anxiety or depression. People with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity may also have arthritis.

Types of Arthritis

Pain and stiffness in the body and trouble moving about are indicators of arthritis. Arthritis causes swelling in the joints that can become severely damaged over time.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis. Following are the most common forms:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA): This is the most common type of arthritis and is associated with aging. Joint injuries, improperly formed joints, genetic defects, and being overweight also can contribute to OA. Stiffness, pain, and lack of range of motion occur in the hands, knees, hips, and spine. Almost 30 million Americans, or one in 10 people, have OA. Warning signs include stiffness in a joint after getting out of bed or sitting for a long time, swelling or tenderness in one of more joints, and a crunching feeling or the sound of bone rubbing against bone.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is a type of autoimmune disease, a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. Indicators are pain, swelling, and stiffness that typically occur in joints on both sides of the body, such as both knees or both wrists. Genes, the environment, and hormones can cause RA. Treatment includes drugs to reduce pain and swelling, exercise, and lowered stress.
  • Psoriatic arthritis (PA): This form of arthritis can affect people who have psoriasis, a condition marked by scaly red and white patches of skin. The joints most often affected are the fingers, toes, wrists, knees, ankles, and lower back. The cause is unknown, but researchers believe PA is a result of genetics or environmental conditions.
  • Juvenile arthritis (JA): This type of arthritis, also called pediatric rheumatic disease, affects children. Juvenile arthritis usually is an autoimmune disease that may be genetically linked or caused by a virus, but the most common type of JA is idiopathic arthritis, which means “from unknown cause.” Signs of JA include stiffness, excessive clumsiness, high fever and skin rash, and swelling in the lymph nodes.
  • Gout: Gout is a painful type of arthritis resulting from excessive uric acid buildup in the body, affecting joints, skin, and the kidneys. It commonly starts in the big toe but can also be found in the insteps, ankles, heels, knees, wrists, fingers, and elbows. Gout attacks can result from stress, alcohol, drugs, or illness. Normally, uric acid dissolves in the blood and passes through the kidneys, but it can also build up in the blood, and the kidneys cannot expel it quickly enough. Gout also may derive from eating too many foods high in prurines, the substances in food and drink that uric acid is supposed to break down.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis: This form of arthritis is an autoimmune disease that mainly affects the joints in the spine. It also can involve the shoulders, ribs, hips, knees, and feet and the tendons and ligaments that attach to the bones. Its name derives from the Greek words ankylos, meaning stiffening of a joint, and spondylo, meaning vertebra. Ankylosing spondylitis symptoms range from mild back pain that comes and goes to severe, ongoing pain, loss of flexibility in the spine, fusion of spinal vertebra, and stiffness in the rib cage that restricts lung capacity.
  • Infectious arthritis: Also called septic arthritis, infectious arthritis results from an infection that spreads from another part of the body and settles in the joints. The infection can result from bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, spread through surgery, open wounds, or an injection. Symptoms come on rapidly and typically only impact one joint. Antibiotics are used in treatment.

What Can Help Arthritis Symptoms?

Although there is no known cure for arthritis, following are methods to relieve symptoms associated with the disability:

  • Exercise: Even though arthritis is a debilitating disorder that can make people want to sit, walking is recommended for arthritis sufferers. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all adults, including those with arthritis, get 2.5 hours of moderately intense aerobic activity a week—that’s a brisk 30-minute walk five days a week—along with muscle-strengthening exercises. If walking 30 minutes is too difficult, breaking the walk into 10- or 15-minute increments can help too. Do not overdo exercise. Avoid high-impact activities and ones with repetitive motions like serving a tennis ball or jumping. Balance activity with rest, practice good posture, and perform gentle stretches that move joints through their full range of motion to help with the pain and stiffness of arthritis.
  • Diet: Eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is a healthy polyunsaturated fat, is known to reduce inflammation in the body. Salmon, Arctic char, black cod, trout, mackerel, oysters, anchovies, albacore tuna, mussels, Pacific halibut, rockfish, catfish, and sardines are seafood high in omega-3s. Flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans also contain omega-3s.
  • Therapies: Cognitive behavioral therapy can break the cycle of self-defeating thoughts and actions that can increase pain; relaxation therapy, such as meditation, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing, and listening to music, helps focus the mind away from pain; acupuncture, the inserting of hair-thin needles into specific points on the body by trained acupuncturists, has been known to improve pain in some individuals; heat and cold therapies, such as applying heating pads, taking hot baths, and using warm paraffin wax to loosen stiff joints, as well as applying ice packs to relieve soreness and inflammation after strenuous activities, are helpful practices; massage can relax muscles.
  • Lifestyle changes: Managing weight and quitting smoking, both of which can cause stress on connective tissue, also can improve arthritis.

Consult a doctor if you are experiencing stiff or painful joints.



Sources: Arthritis National Research Foundation (ANRF), Arthritis Fact Sheets, https://curearthritis.org/receive-your-free-arthritis-fact-sheets/; CDC, Arthritis Awareness Month, https://www.cdc.gov/features/arthritisawareness/index.html; Mayo Clinic, Arthritis Pain: Do’s and Don’ts,  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/in-depth/arthritis/art-20046440; National Arthritis Research Foundation, https://curearthritis.org/receive-your-free-arthritis-fact-sheets/; U.S. News & World Report, “13 Best Fish: High in Omega-3s—and Environmentally Friendly,” https://health.usnews.com/wellness/slideshows/13-best-fish-high-in-omega-3sand-environment-friendly?slide=15

Images courtesy: ANRF, https://curearthritis.org/arthritis-awareness-month/

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