Types of Arthritis

When you hear the term "arthritis," you probably imagine painful and stiff joints. While that is pretty accurate (arthritis literally means "joint inflammation"), there are actually over 100 different types of arthritis, which is the leading cause of disability in the United States. For most people, arthritis is unavoidable since the joints naturally degenerate over time. Most people over 50 years of age show some symptoms of arthritis. In general, arthritis can affect the joints, muscles, skin and internal organs, and there is no known cure for this chronic disease.

Here's a basic overview of the three most common types of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, affects an estimated 21 million adults in the United States alone. Osteoarthritis begins with the breakdown of joint cartilage which results in pain, stiffness, swelling and tenderness. The joints of the fingers, spine, hips and knees, are most often affected, but osteoarthritis can also affect the shoulders, elbows, wrists and ankles.
  • Who's at risk for osteoarthritis? Age is another leading risk factor, because osteoarthritis usually occurs as people get older. Other factors that seem to contribute to osteoarthritis include genetics, joint damage (resulting from injury or repetitive movement) and obesity.
  • Can osteoarthritis be prevented? There's no fool-proof way to prevent this condition. But certain risk factors that are associated with the development of osteoarthritis (such as obesity and physical inactivity) are within your control. By maintaining a healthy body weight, getting regular exercise, building strong bones through a healthy diet, and trying to prevent joint injuries, you may be able to reduce your risk.
  • What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis? Common symptoms include: joint pain and swelling (especially after activity), limited flexibility, a grinding sensation when a joint moves, numbness or tingling, and deep aching in the joints. As osteoarthritis worsens, the pain and discomfort worsens and becomes constant, possibly interfering with sleep.
  • How is osteoarthritis treated? If you experience joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling for more than two weeks, make an appointment to see your doctor, as early diagnosis can help minimize the pain and disability of osteoarthritis. The two of you can develop a plan that includes a combination of diet and exercise changes, weight loss, physical therapy, and over-the-counter or prescription medication.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which affects between two and three million Americans, is the most common form of "inflammatory arthritis." The joint pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling associated with RA can eventually misshape and damage joints permanently and even wear away surrounding ligaments, cartilage and bone. The joints of the fingers, wrists, arms and legs are most often affected, but RA can also affect the shoulders, neck and hips. RA tends to be symmetrical—if one knee or hand has it, for example, the other usually does, too.
  • Who's at risk for rheumatoid arthritis? RA most commonly afflicts people between the ages of 20 and 50, but children and the elderly can also be affected. Women experience RA more often than men, accounting for 75% of all cases in the United States. Genetics also seem to play a role.
  • Can rheumatoid arthritis be prevented? The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown but most experts believe it is an "autoimmune" disease (the body's own immune system attacks its own body tissues). There is no way to prevent RA from occurring.
  • What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis? In addition to the symptoms listed above, people with RA may also experience limited joint motion, joint tightness, fatigue (usually in the afternoon), aching (usually in the morning), weight loss, fever, and overall weakness.
  • How is rheumatoid arthritis treated? RA treatment focuses on maintaining one's ability to move and function while reducing pain and preventing future damage. A comprehensive treatment approach usually involves some combination of medication, rest, exercise, lifestyle changes, and sometimes surgery.
Fibromyalgia is a common, yet controversial disease that affects about five million Americans. Unlike osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia does not involve the joints. Instead, it affects muscles, ligaments, tendons and soft tissues, but involves the stiffness and pain associated with arthritis. This chronic disease can cause symptoms almost anywhere on the body, but most commonly between the shoulder blades and at the bottom of the neck.
  • Who's at risk for fibromyalgia? The vast majority of fibromyalgia patients are women between the ages of 35 and 60.
  • Can fibromyalgia be prevented? Very little is understood about the potential causes of fibromyalgia, but so far, there doesn't seem to be any way to prevent it.
  • What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia? Fibromyalgia pain may be expressed as general soreness or gnawing aches, with stiffness that worsens in the morning. Other symptoms include abnormal tiredness (even after sleeping well), irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, headaches, and specific tender spots on the body.
  • How is fibromyalgia treated? Because every person experiences fibromyalgia and its symptoms differently, treatment plans can vary considerably from person to person. A comprehensive approach focuses on medication (to relieve pain and other symptoms, like depression), low-impact exercise, and lifestyle changes (to enhance sleep, for example). Alternative therapies, such as massage, stress management, acupuncture, and hypnosis, are also common.
No matter what the type, arthritis is a chronic and debilitating condition. But working closely with your doctor and implementing lifestyle changes along with your treatment plan can greatly enhance your quality of life.