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Arthritis 101: What you should know

Young woman holding her wrist

Think arthritis is just the inevitable pain that comes with age? Think again.

Arthritis is a complex family of more than 100 types of musculoskeletal disorders with many causes and no definite cure. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the disease strikes 53 million adults in the U.S. (one in five), 300,000 children and is the nation’s leading cause of disability.

“Symptoms of arthritis include pain, stiffness, swelling and decreased range of motion of the joints,” said Priya Nair, M.D., clinical assistant professor of rheumatology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Dallas. “Fatigue, depression and therefore decreased productivity can be part of the disease.”

Symptoms can also come and go – sometimes staying the same for years, and then progressing or getting worse over time. Some types of arthritis can cause additional issues, including inflammation involving the eyes, skin, bowels, lungs or kidneys.

Types of arthritis include osteoarthritis (progressive degenerative joint disease affecting cartilage and underlying bone), rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation of membrane lining the joint), and gout (build-up of uric acid crystals in the joints). Each type of arthritis can lead to joint damage and deformity.

Arthritis is also part of the systemic rheumatic diseases that cause chronic inflammation and can affect multiple organs; examples of systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases are Systemic Lupus Erythematosis, Sjogren’s syndrome and Systemic Sclerosis. Each has its own symptoms and treatment.

While there is no cure, there are medications that can not only treat the arthritis symptoms effectively but also keep the immune dysfunction under control.

Lifestyle changes can also help to improve the overall health of an arthritic patient. Healthy eating habits such as avoiding alcohol and certain foods high in purines can reduce flare-ups of gout.

“Exercise helps in many ways, such as weight control, improved support of the affected joints, greater flexibility, improved quality of sleep, increased energy and decreased stress,” Nair said. “Strengthening and stretching exercises are helpful in reducing joint pain such as from Osteoarthritis of the knees and pain of fibromyalgia syndrome.”

Nair warns to be wary of myths about diet cures. There are food components that may help reduce inflammation such as omega 3 fatty acids, but the effects are fairly mild.

“While diagnostic tests and treatments have improved a great deal for several types of arthritis, there are many types that have continued to be challenging,” Nair said. That’s why an accurate diagnosis and early initiation of treatment are crucial.

Make an appointment with your primary care provider if you feel arthritis may be the culprit of your unusual aches and pains. They can assess your symptoms and perform a physical exam to check for swollen joints or loss of motion. If necessary, blood tests and X-rays can confirm the diagnosis and even distinguish the type of arthritis you may have.

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