Arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation of the joints and can affect anyone from young children to seniors. It is typically characterized by joint pain and stiffness that make movement painful and difficult, though newer treatment options have helped many patients deal more effectively with symptoms. Additionally, joint health can often be improved with exercise, medication, and the right lifestyle habits.
Arthritis: A Painful History
About 46 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis that's about one in five Americans, and the number is rising and expected to jump dramatically in the coming years.
But arthritis is not a new phenomenon; it has plagued mankind for hundreds of years. There's evidence in centuries-old skeletal remains of arthritic joints, says Rochelle Rosian, MD, a Cleveland Clinic rheumatologist in Solon, Ohio.
"Over the past 100 years, there's a lot more knowledge of the science of the musculoskeletal condition and the immune system," says Dr. Rosian. Researchers have identified more than 100 different types of arthritis, and counting. Many inflammatory conditions accompanied by fevers and immune dysfunction are now understood to be conditions related to arthritis, and more conditions are added to this list all the time.
Arthritis Symptoms and Types
Arthritis is characterized by pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints, as well as by reduced joint mobility. But arthritis appears in different forms, and the causes of arthritis vary by type.. In addition, arthritis inflammation can result from a variety of conditions and diseases, like gout, lupus, and fibromyalgia
Arthritis can be broken down into three main categories. Here are some of the most common types:
The Course of Treatment for Arthritis
The way arthritis is treated has also progressed quite a bit over the years. Osteoarthritis was once managed with just aspirin, heat therapy, and splints binding or bandaging a painful joint to "protect" it. But, Rosian says, that often ends up doing more harm than good.
Today, doctors know that giving a joint a bit of rest, instead of keeping it from being used at all, is a much more successful therapy. "People used to splint or wrap arthritic joints, and then [the joint] became immobile," says Rosian. Now, it's use it or lose it" when it comes to joints affected by arthritis.
Now, osteoarthritis is treated with a combination of exercise, physical therapy, medications, joint injections, and weight loss. With both obesity and arthritis epidemics on the rise, the link between excess body weight and arthritis is now clearer than ever, according to Rosian. And one of the best and more recent recommendations to help manage osteoarthritis is to lose weight and lessen the strain on the joints that are supporting all that extra weight, such as knees and hips.
For rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory forms of arthritis, there have been even more significant treatment advances in recent history. In the mid-1900s, the steroid prednisone was invented and was used as the primary treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, Rosian notes, it offered nearly as many side effects and risks as it did benefits.
Today, the science surrounding RA has evolved significantly, and treatments have changed over the last 15 years with the development of biologic drugs like Humira (adalimumab) and Enbrel (etanercept). These newer treatments have been helpful in attacking the disease and sometimes even put it into remission, says Rosian. Some of the older medications used to treat arthritis, like prednisone, may still be used in combination with newer, more effective treatments, says Rosian, but prednisone is no longer "a cornerstone of therapy, the way it used to be.
If you or someone you love is living with joint pain and stiffness, don't delay getting a diagnosis. With the right treatment plan in place, most forms of arthritis can be managed effectively.