Arthritis: One Word for a Wide Array of Diseases

Health Writer
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What is arthritis?

Arthritis, per the Arthritis Foundation, is an informal term for joint disease. Arthritis refers to degenerative musculoskeletal changes in joints. There are at least 100 types of arthritis and related conditions. Arthritis, while more prevalent in older people, affects people of all ages, both sexes, and all races and ethnicities.

Is arthritis curable?

Arthritis is not curable. By maintaining a healthy weight; eating a nutrient-dense, low-fat diet; and getting regular exercise with minimal impact on joints (swimming, bike riding), one can delay the onset of arthritis and reduce the severity of symptoms. While incurable, arthritis can be effectively managed by widely available therapeutic options.

How many people have arthritis in the US?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), using data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), estimates that 52.5 million (22.7 percent) of US adults between 2010 and 2012 had arthritis diagnosed by a physician. What does that number mean? It means that the number of people diagnosed with arthritis would fill New York City nearly 7 times.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Arthritis symptoms include pain, stiffness, swelling, and diminished range of motion. Symptoms wax and wane, and they tend to get worse over time. Fortunately, they are manageable, thanks to innovations that have emerged from robust clinical research. The following frames list and describe the most common types of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

OA is the main cause of disability in older adults. Exercise and medication can decrease pain and improve function. OA affects the entire joint--cartilage, ligaments, and bone--in hands, knees, hips, spine, and toes. Lifetime risk of OA in knees is close to 50 percent and in hips 25 percent, per the Johnston County Osteoarthritis Project run by UNC and the CDC.

Spondyloarthritis (SpA)

Spondyloarthritis is a family of inflammatory rheumatic diseases. SpA targets sites where ligaments and tendons attach to bones (entheses). Symptoms include spinal inflammation that causes pain and stiffness and bone destruction of the spine and poor function of shoulders and hips. Ankylosing spondylitis is the most common type of SpA.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

RA is an autoimmune arthritis, caused by a faulty immune system that attacks one’s own tissue, usually in the wrist and small joints of the hand. Early treatment can reduce damage to joints. People with RA should do low-impact exercise like walking and swimming. Rheumatologists are best trained to help RA patients and have an array of very effective therapies.

Juvenile Arthritis (JA)

1 child in 1,000 gets JA, which is treatable and may even go into remission. The best choice for physician care is a pediatric rheumatologist. Symptoms include pain and stiffness in one or multiple joints, fevers, skin rash, and eye inflammation. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent joint damage.

Psoriatic Arthritis (PsA)

PsA occurs in people with skin psoriasis and in those who have relatives with psoriasis. PsA affects the large joints of the lower extremities, distal joints of the fingers and toes, and the back and sacroiliac joints of the pelvis. Treatment relieves pain and reduces joint damage. It emerges between age 30 and 50, and sometimes in childhood.


Gout is a form of arthritis that starts with painful swelling in single joints, most often the big toe, from buildup of uric acid crystals. Prescribed medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, colchicine, and corticosteroids. ACR advises losing weight and limiting alcohol, meat and fish rich in purines.

Reactive Arthritis

Reactive arthritis is a painful form of inflammatory arthritis resulting from infection by bacteria, usually in men between ages 20 and 50. It can be a single episode or chronic inflammation of heels, toes, fingers, low back, knees or ankles that may resolve on its own or require treatment by a physician.

How can you tell which one you might have?

For an accurate diagnosis, rely on a rheumatology specialist. Some types of arthritis can be diagnosed with tests. RA is confirmed by the presence of rheumatoid factor in a blood test. Gout is confirmed by excess uric acid in the blood. Other types are confirmed by symptom patterns and testing to rule out other types. Rely on a rheumatologist for your diagnosis and care!