What is arthritis?

By: DiscoveryHealth.com writers

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.

Arthritis Risk Factors

As we get older, we're all at risk of osteoarthritis, but you're more prone to the disease if you're overweight as the excess pounds put extra pressure on the joints. Athletes and dancers (and women who regularly wear high heels!) who stress their bodies much more than the average person also have a higher than average risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically begins in middle age although it can develop in childhood. The disease is two to three times more common among women than men. While heredity appears to be a contributing factor, it isn't the only one. Researchers believe that some environmental agent — a virus, or even stress, can trigger the actual development of the disease among people genetically predisposed to it.


Men are at higher risk to develop gout than women, making this one of the rare arthritic diseases more common among men. Heredity plays a role here, too — up to 18 percent of people diagnosed with gout have a family history of the disease. Other risk factors include being overweight, excess alcohol consumption and taking certain medications such as diuretics, aspirin or other drugs containing salicylic acid, niacin, Cyclosporine (a drug used to prevent the body's rejection of transplanted organs), and Levodopa, a treatment for Parkinson's disease.

Arthritis Prevention and Treatment

There's not much anyone can do to prevent the various forms of arthritis, but you can take steps to avoid flare-ups of gout and rheumatoid arthritis and to manage the progression or intensity of osteoarthritis. Medications are available to prevent gout recurrences and reduce production of uric acid. Losing weight can help prevent further attacks of gout and can also lessen the pain of osteoarthritis by reducing extra stress on joints. Exercise can reduce joint pain and stiffness. While walking or jogging is hard on the joints, swimming or water aerobics provide an equivalent workout without the stress. Occupational therapy can give you techniques for performing routine activities in ways that don't tax the joints.

Treatment for osteoarthritis ranges from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen for pain relief to stronger, prescription anti-inflammatories and steroids. Medications called DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs) can sometimes slow the course of rheumatoid arthritis. When damaged joints become disabling, tendon reconstruction, synovial fluid replacement, or total joint replacement surgery are options for people with both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Natural or alternative treatments for arthritis include bee venom therapy — using bee stings to reduce swelling and inflammation. Some medical evidence suggests that this works in rats, but there's no proof that it helps arthritic people. However, studies have found that another alternative therapy, a form of meditative martial arts, can be very useful. Although it hasn't been studied among arthritis patients, researchers have found that Tai Chi improves flexibility, builds muscle strength, improves range of motion and balance, relieves stress and pain yet is so gentle on the body that almost everyone can do it.

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