Learning about arthritis can help ease its pain

Contributing columnistMay 17, 2013 

For most people, joint pains equate to arthritis, a part of the rite of passage for getting older. There is more to arthritis than meets the eye.

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability and a growing problem in the United States. According to the Arthritis Foundation, an estimated 67 million Americans will have some form of the disease by 2030. It's already taxing on the American health care system, resulting in 44 million outpatient visits annually, as well as nearly 1 million hospitalizations.

Arthritis is a collection of more than 100 different, complex musculoskeletal diseases and conditions that can affect all people, regardless of age, gender or race. According to the Arthritis Foundation, two-thirds of all arthritis sufferers in the United States are under the age of 65.

Of the 100 varieties of arthritis, people are likely most familiar with the two most common types: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, a progressive, degenerative joint disease, results in the breakdown of cartilage surrounding the joint. It is commonly seen in older people but can affect those much younger depending on a variety of factors, including prior joint injury, concurrent inflammatory arthritis and being overweight.

The second most notable type of arthritis is known as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a systemic disease that results in the inflammation of the membranes lining the joint. In some cases, it may also affect other organs. There are many genetic and environmental factors that interplay leading to the manifestation of RA.

These types of arthritis can cause stiffness, pain, warmth in the affected area, swelling and, in some cases, can result in further, severe joint damage; which in turn affects the quality of life.

As with many conditions that plague the U.S., arthritis is one that can be lessened by a combination of diet and exercise, especially when they result in the maintenance of a healthy weight. According to the Arthritis Foundation, one pound of overall weight loss reduces the pressure on each knee by four pounds.

In spite of the belief that exercise can cause or worsen arthritis, some forms of exercise are actually invaluable tools in fighting against the disease and preventing its onset. A number of types of endurance and resistance exercises can provide considerable benefits for arthritis sufferers, but as always, consult with your physician before engaging in an exercise regimen.

Treatments for arthritis vary based on the type of the disorder a patient has.

For osteoarthritis, as an example, treatment may include the use of analgesics, NSAIDs, and pain relievers. In more severe cases, joint injections or even joint replacements may be needed.

For the inflammatory types of arthritis such as RA, in addition to the aforementioned treatments, patients' regimen may include the use of immunosuppressive medications; which calm the overactive immune system.

There is definitely more to arthritis than just the aches and pains of older age. Getting to know the types of arthritis can empower and provide people the tools to manage it using a multisystem approach of appropriate exercise, medication, and necessary diet and lifestyle changes. Simple factors such as diet, exercise and practicing joint health can even go a long way in preventing the onset and progression of arthritis.

Dr. Lucia Hardi is a rheumatologist with KentuckyOne Health.

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