It seems like everyone knows someone who has arthritis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) an estimated 52.5 million American adults suffer from the condition.
But how do you know if your aches and pains are arthritis-related or the symptoms of some other illness? Aloice Aluoch, a rheumatologist at Piedmont Physicians Rheumatology at Atlanta, provides guidance.
What is arthritis?
“Arthritis refers to inflammation of a joint,” says Dr. Aluoch. “This inflammation can affect any of the important structures inside a joint, including the joint lining, bones, cartilage, or supporting tissues.
Common symptoms of arthritis include pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joint, and the condition may affect one or several joints throughout the body.
Two types of arthritis
There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and they fall into two categories: non-inflammatory and inflammatory.
- Non-inflammatory arthritis usually causes pain that is aggravated by movement and weight-bearing and is relieved by rest. Examples include osteoarthritis, which is the most common type of arthritis and affects about 12 percent of adults over the age of 25.
- Inflammatory arthritis usually causes joint stiffness with rest, especially in the morning. Examples include infectious arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
Who does osteoarthritis most commonly affect?
“For unknown reasons, women are two to three times more likely than men to develop osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Aluoch. “It is also true that women are more affected by rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus.”
Other risk factors include:
- Age: Advancing age is one of the strongest risk factors for osteoarthritis. The condition rarely occurs in people younger than the age of 40, but at least 80 percent of people over the age of 55 have some x-ray evidence of the disorder.
- Weight: People who are obese or overweight have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis, though weight loss may reduce their risk.
- Occupation: Osteoarthritis of the knee has been linked to certain occupations that require frequent squatting and kneeling, like dock work and carpentry. And osteoarthritis of the hip has been linked to farm work, construction work, and other activities that require heavy lifting, prolonged standing, or walking several miles a day.
- Sports: People who play sports are also at increased risk for osteoarthritis. Playing certain sports like wrestling, cycling, gymnastics, ballet, soccer and football can increase risk.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
The process of diagnosing arthritis involves several steps. Usually a medical history and physical examination provide the most helpful information, says Dr. Aluoch. Doctors may also conduct lab tests by drawing blood, or perform imaging tests like x-rays, MRIs or CT scans. In some cases, the doctor may test the fluid inside of a joint to determine the cause of the arthritis.
How do you treat arthritis?
Treatment for arthritis depends on its underlying cause, but common forms of treatment include: physical and occupational therapy, pain relievers like acetaminophen, anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen, and medications that suppress the immune system.
When should you see your doctor?
Dr. Aluoch recommends checking in with your doctor if you are experience any of the following symptoms:
- Weight loss
- An inability to function due to joint pain
- An overall sense of feeling ill
- Sudden weakness of specific muscle groups
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