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Arthritis is a common condition affecting about 53.2 million adults in the United States alone. It is the leading cause of disability and can be a barrier to maintaining good health. People with arthritis may avoid exercise and not get the recommended amount of physical activity, which can put them at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. The effects of arthritis can limit their ability to function in their everyday lives. In some cases, early identification and treatment can decrease symptom severity. Knowing the types of arthritis, their symptoms, and management techniques can be helpful in maintaining a high quality of life with this condition.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis means inflammation or swelling of the joints." It is not a singular condition; in fact, the term describes a wide range of conditions that affect the joints and the tissues around the joints. While specific symptoms depend on the type of arthritis, most involve joint pain and stiffness. Some risk factors for arthritis  are controllable, like obesity, infection, joint injuries, smoking, and occupations that require a lot of repetitive bending and squatting. Other risk factors, like age, gender, and genetics, are not.

Arthritis of the finger and thumb joint.

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Recognizing symptoms of arthritis

Common symptoms of arthritis include pain, swelling, stiffness, redness, and decreased range of motion. How these symptoms appear and progress can vary, depending on the type of arthritis. For example, people with osteoarthritis, which is the most common type, experience wear and tear in the cartilage in the joint, resulting in bone grinding directly on other bones, which causes pain and limits the range of motion. However, in people with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the lining of the joint capsule, the joint becomes swollen and inflamed. Regardless of the type of arthritis, the damage caused to the joints worsens over time, limiting the range of motion and functionality and significantly impacting a person's ability to perform daily activities.

male holding knee in pain while running Panuwat Dangsungnoen / Getty Images

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Treatment options for arthritis

Arthritis treatment focuses on symptom relief and improving joint function. Multiple treatment options are available, including:

  • Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and naproxen, can reduce inflammation and relieve pain. NSAIDs are also available as topical creams that can be rubbed directly on the affected joints.
  • Steroids. Steroids can reduce inflammation, lessen pain, and slow joint damage. Corticosteroids can be taken orally or injected directly into the affected joint.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These medications are for people with rheumatoid arthritis and may help prevent permanent damage.
  • Counterirritants. These ointments and creams contain menthol or capsaicin. When rubbed directly onto the affected joint, these ingredients can interfere with pain signals and bring some relief.
  • Physical therapy. Some types of arthritis can benefit from physical therapy. PT exercises can help strengthen the muscles around the joints and improve the range of motion.
  • Surgery. When other interventions are unsuccessful, doctors may recommend surgery. Joint repair is a minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery that smooths and realigns the joint surfaces. Another option is joint replacement, which is when a surgeon removes the damaged joint and replaces it with an artificial one. This type of procedure is usually done on the knees and hips. Another option is joint fusion, often used for smaller joints like the angle, wrists, and fingers. In this procedure, the ends of the bones in the joint are removed, and the bones are fused into a single, rigid unit.

Each type of arthritis is different. Talk to your doctor about treatment options and what may be the right approach for you.

Patient at the physiotherapy doing physical exercises with his therapist LSOphoto / Getty Images

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Complications associated with arthritis

Arthritis has some potential complications, specifically chronic and severe nerve damage that can lead to disability. As arthritis progresses, pain and mobility issues can get increasingly severe and prevent people from working or carrying out daily activities. Getting early treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition, keeping pain manageable and preserving range of motion.

Senior man with arthritis rubbing hands PIKSEL/ Getty Images

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Home remedies and lifestyle changes

The following lifestyle changes and home remedies can help manage arthritis day-to-day and may help improve symptoms and prevent complications.

  • Be physically active. Regular physical activity can support bone health, help reduce pain, and improve joint function. Some activity is better than none, and staying as active as your health allows can have significant benefits for arthritis and your health in general.
  • Protect your joints. When exercising, choose low-impact activities that are less likely to cause joint injuries or worsen arthritis. Activities like swimming, walking, and biking can help you stay active without adding unnecessary stress to your hips and knees.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing excess weight reduces stress on the joints, particularly the hips and knees. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, it can be beneficial to know that losing as little as ten pounds can help improve joint function and reduce pain.
  • Take care of your mental health. Living with the pain and limitations of arthritis can take a toll on your emotional and mental health. Everyone feels anxious occasionally, but if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression  like constant worrying, restlessness, fatigue, and loss of interest in activities and hobbies, consider seeking treatment from a qualified mental health professional.

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Dietary management of arthritis

One review found that some diets and spices can help reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. There was moderate evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats is beneficial for people with RA, along with garlic powder, saffron, and cinnamon. Research also shows that certain foods can increase the symptoms of RA, including diet soda, sugary soda, tomato, red meat, eggplant, beer, and sweets. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains ensures you get all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you need to maintain good health and support a healthy weight.

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Understanding joint health

Maintaining joint health can help prevent further damage and preserve the range of motion in the joints. One way to support joint health is to listen to your body when you exercise. Choose low-impact exercises, like swimming and cycling. Apply heat to your joints for about 20 minutes before exercising using warm towels, a shower, or hot packs to relax your joints and muscles. Before exercising, warm up for five to ten minutes and go slowly. Take a break if you feel any pain. After exercising, ice your joints for up to 20 minutes, especially if your joints are swollen. It is important to listen to your body. Build slowly, and don't push too hard. Add more intensity as you get stronger, but take your time.

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Most common types of arthritis

Two of the most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. While both cause joint pain, these two types of arthritis are very different. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints wears away. If it wears down completely, the bone will rub on the bone. Osteoarthritis affects the entire joint and causes bone and connective tissue changes. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory condition where the immune system attacks the tissues in the joints. One significant difference between the two is that RA can also cause flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, and weakness. Both types of arthritis can affect the hands, but osteoarthritis often affects the joint at the end of the finger, while RA does not. People with osteoarthritis often experience mid-morning stiffness that resolves with activity. For people with RA, this stiffness usually lasts for a longer period.

Inflammation of Asian young man’s ankle joint and foot. Concept of joint pain, osteoarthritis or gout.

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Other types of arthritis

There are multiple other types of arthritis, including:

  • Gout. Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that typically flares up for a few weeks and then resolves. Gout often begins in the big toe and occurs when urate crystals build up in the body over time, causing crystal-like formations in and around the joints.
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or JIA, is an autoimmune disease. While children can outgrow JIA, the disease can affect bone growth and development. There are several types of JIA: systemic onset, a rare condition that affects one or more joints and can cause inflammation of the heart, spleen, liver, and lymph nodes; oligoarticular JIA, which affects one to four joints in the first six months and can spread; polyarticular JIA, which affects five or more joints in the first six months and can spread; and enthesitis-related JIA, which occurs when the tissue where the bone meets tendons and ligaments swells.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis. This type of arthritis causes inflammation in the joints and ligaments of the spine, though it can also affect peripheral joints. Ankylosing spondylitis can lead to severe, ongoing back pain and loss of flexibility in the spine.
  • Psoriatic arthritis. Some people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis, which causes joint pain, swelling, and stiffness and alternates between severe flares and periods of remission. Without treatment, psoriatic arthritis can be debilitating.
  • Reactive arthritis. This type of arthritis occurs due to an infection in another part of the body, usually the urinary tract, intestines, or genitals. Reactive arthritis is rare and usually goes away within 12 months.

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Protecting overall health

Effectively managing arthritis can have significant benefits to your overall health. Talk to your doctor to learn more about the available treatments and determine a combination of pharmacological treatments that can help alleviate your arthritis pain. In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, establishing a daily exercise routine can help maintain a healthy weight, which can improve arthritis symptoms. Physical activity can help maintain range of motion, decrease bone loss, and reduce pain and swelling. It can also help reduce the risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol, obesity, osteoporosis, and colon cancer. Exercise can increase energy by improving sleep quality and offers many psychological benefits. Immediately after exercising, people may feel an improvement in mood and anxiety. In the long term, regular exercise can help lower baseline levels of anxiety and improve mild depression. Before exercising, use warm compresses to loosen up the joints, and take five to ten minutes to warm up before getting started. Listen to your body and stop if you feel any pain. When you're done, ice your joints, especially if you're experiencing swelling. Actively taking steps to manage your arthritis every day can help prevent long-term complications and help you stay active and independent.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.