What Is Arthritis?

The word “arthritis” means joint inflammation (derived from “arth,” which in Greek means joint, and “itis,” meaning inflammation). Scientists have identified more than 100 types of arthritis, many of which affect the skin, muscles, bones and internal organs as well as the joints. Together, these conditions are known as rheumatic diseases. Physicians who specialize in treating these diseases are called rheumatologists.

Prevalence

Arthritis is one of the most common chronic health problems in the United States. It is also the number one cause of disability. About 23 percent of adults in the United States—or approximately 52 million in all—have been diagnosed with arthritis or suffer from chronic joint symptoms such as pain and stiffness. The majority of people with arthritis have osteoarthritis, which affects about 27 million. An additional 1.5 million people have rheumatoid arthritis, and the remainder have other forms of arthritis or diseases related to arthritis, such as lupus, gout or fibromyalgia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 24 percent of women and approximately 19 percent of men have some form of doctor-diagnosed arthritis. The risks increase with age, with approximately 50 percent of adults 65 and older reporting an arthritis diagnosis.

The economic cost of arthritis in the United States for medical care and lost wages combined is almost $156 billion annually. The most important cost, of course, is the pain, suffering and disability that can significantly affect a person’s quality of life.

Prognosis

Arthritis is a chronic condition—a disease that persists for a long time, often for a lifetime. At present there is no cure. That may seem discouraging but, fortunately, there’s much reason for optimism. New research has led to early diagnosis and better control of many forms of arthritis. It is now clear, for example, that regular exercise is not a hazard to people with arthritis but is instead essential for preventing pain and disability.

Thanks to new medications and surgical procedures, fewer people with arthritis now develop severe joint deformities and permanent disabilities. With proper care from their doctors-—and active participation in managing their own treatment plan—most individuals who have arthritis continue to lead active lives, even in their later years.

If you or someone you care about has arthritis, obtaining accurate information is an important part of the treatment plan. Contrary to ads for miracle cures and instant pain relievers that you may hear on the radio or see in newspapers, magazines or on the Internet, arthritis treatment often involves trial and error to find the best combination of therapies and medications to relieve your symptoms. The more you know about arthritis, the more you will understand the rationale behind the treatment, and the better prepared you will be to participate in your own arthritis management.