Arthritis affects more than 46 million Americans and is the number one cause of disability in the United States.  Defined as inflammation of a joint, arthritis is a broad term applied to a range of joint disorders. In most cases, arthritis is characterized by stiffness, swelling and discomfort of the joints.  While there are a variety of types of arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis are most prevalent, affecting millions of Americans.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease resulting from the gradual wearing away of the protective cartilage found at the end of bones. This loss of cartilage causes bones to rub together, damaging surrounding muscles and nerves and making movement of the joint difficult. Osteoarthritis is particularly common in the elderly and most commonly affects the hands and the weight-bearing joints of the knees, hips and spine. Previously injured joints are also susceptible to developing the condition.  While physicians do not know the specific cause of osteoarthritis, factors such as obesity, genetics and joint overuse are frequently associated with the disease.

Of the 27 million Americans diagnosed with osteoarthritis, many experience no serious symptoms. Some, however, experience significant pain, which greatly impacts physical activity and lifestyle.  Although there is no specific cure to restore damaged cartilage, treatment options focus on reducing pain and discomfort and may include weight reduction, physical and occupational therapies and anti-inflammatory medications.  In severe cases, surgery to repair or replace damaged joints may be recommended.

Whereas osteoarthritis most commonly affects the elderly, rheumatoid arthritis affects more than two million Americans ages 25 to 55. Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease that generally begins as inflammation of the wrists, hands, ankles and feet and progresses to larger joints such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and hips. Unlike osteoarthritis, which involves the wearing away of cartilage, with rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks itself, resulting in pain, inflammation and extensive joint damage.  In addition to joint pain, individuals with rheumatoid arthritis often experience, fatigue, sleeplessness and severe discomfort after long periods of inactivity.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis and the symptoms are often severe and disabling.  If treated early, however, symptoms can be managed, greatly decreasing the chances of permanent disability.  Treatments often include medications to relieve pain and control inflammation, occupational and physical therapies, and periods of rest to allow damaged tissues to heal.  As with osteoarthritis, in severe cases surgery to repair or replace damaged joints may be recommended.

Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) is the most common type of childhood arthritis and is characterized by joint pain, swelling and stiffness often accompanied by fever and a rash. As with adult rheumatoid arthritis, physicians believe JRA is also an auto-immune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own cells and tissues, resulting in joint inflammation.

JRA treatment focuses on helping children maintain normal physical activity by relieving pain and swelling and preserving full joint movement.  Medications such as anti-inflammatory agents or coticosteroids are often prescribed in combination with physical and occupational therapies in order to manage symptoms and promote full range of motion and muscle tone. The following treatments may also help reduce discomfort and restore damaged tissue: applying heat packs before exercising, applying cold packs after exercising, performing exercise that does not strain the joints, like swimming, taking mild pain reliever, sleeping on a firm mattress, and using paraffin wax dips.

Advanced cases of JRA may interfere with bone development and normal growth, but with proper treatment children generally make a full recovery without any lasting symptoms. It is important to seek medical care for children complaining of joint pain, limping, showing signs of decreased physical activity, joint swelling or a persistent fever for more than two days.

The pain associated with all types of arthritis can be life-changing, resulting in limited physical activity that interferes with a healthy lifestyle. It is important for those experiencing the symptoms of arthritis to seek medical treatment early in order to minimize pain and decrease the chances of permanent joint damage.  Once diagnosed by a physician, many treatments can be performed at home or on an out-patient basis. Consult your physician if you are experiencing severe joint pain or other symptoms associated with arthritis.

(Editor’s Note: Indu Partha, M.D. is an Internal Medicine physician practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians.  Her office may be reached at 232-5280 or

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