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What is arthritis?


The word "arthritis" means joint inflammation — from the Latin roots, "arth" meaning joint, and "itis" meaning inflammation. Most types of arthritis are characterized by joint pain — a stiff knee, painful hip, reddened and swollen fingers, but the causes are not always the same. The wear and tear of aging or heavy activity, autoimmune disorders or a breakdown in the body's ability to eliminate metabolic wastes can all lead to different forms of arthritis, each with its own method of treatment. All told, 40 million Americans suffer from the chronic symptoms of arthritis making it the leading cause of disability in the United States.

Specific Arthritis Conditions

Osteoarthritis, sometimes called rheumatism or degenerative joint disease, develops when cartilage, the tissue that cushions the ends of bones within our joints, begins to wear out. Symptoms include morning stiffness in the affected joint, constant or recurring pain, tenderness, warmth and/or redness in a joint and reduced joint mobility. Currently about 21 million Americans live with osteoarthritis — a number that's increasing each day as baby-boomers age.

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks the synovial fluid within joints as though it was disease-causing bacteria or viruses. Rheumatoid arthritis afflicts 2.1 million Americans and causes many of the same symptoms as osteoarthritis, but symptoms also include fatigue, fever and an overall sense of feeling ill. Symptoms usually come and go, but in severe cases, they can continue unabated for years and sometimes lead to other problems such as anemia, neck pain, dry eyes and mouth and, in severe cases, inflammation of the blood vessels, the lining of the lungs or the membrane surrounding the heart.

While gout evokes images of overweight Victorian gentlemen, an estimated 2.4 million Americans suffer with this form of arthritis characterized by sudden, painful attacks. Gout is caused by deposits of crystals of uric acid which inflame the joints after settling in the lower extremities, especially the feet. Uric acid, a byproduct of the breakdown of body wastes called purines, normally is dissolved in the blood and is excreted in urine, but if it isn't eliminated and begins to build up, crystals form causing pain and inflammation. Certain purine-containing foods — liver, dried beans, peas, anchovies and gravies — can add to this buildup.


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