The information contained in this section will provide insights, information and tips that can be used to help make living with arthritis a little bit more manageable.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a general term covering more than 100 different conditions.
The term arthritis literally means inflammation of a joint, but is generally used to describe any condition in which there is damage to the cartilage. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury. The warning signs that inflammation presents are redness, swelling, heat and pain.
The cartilage is a padding that absorbs stress. The proportion of cartilage damage and synovial inflammation varies with the type and stage of arthritis. Usually the pain early on is due to inflammation. In the later stages, when the cartilage is worn away, most of the pain comes from the mechanical friction of raw bones rubbing on each other.
What are the different types of arthritis?
There are over 100 different types of arthritis. The most common are:
Also called degenerative joint disease, this is the most common type of arthritis, which occurs most often in older people. This disease affects cartilage, the tissue that cushions and protects the ends of bones in a joint. With osteoarthritis, the cartilage starts to wear away over time. In extreme cases, the cartilage can completely wear away, leaving nothing to protect the bones in a joint, causing bone-on-bone contact. Bones may also bulge, or stick out at the end of a joint, called a bone spur.
Primary osteoarthritis is commonly associated with ageing and general degeneration of joints. Secondary osteoarthritis is generally the consequence of another disease or condition, such as repeated trauma or surgery to the affected joint, or abnormal joint structures from birth.
Osteoarthritis causes joint pain and can limit a person’s normal range of motion (the ability to freely move and bend a joint). When severe, the joint may lose all movement, causing a person to become disabled. Disability most often happens when the disease affects the spine, knees, and hips.
- Rheumatoid arthritis
This is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system (the body’s way of fighting infection) attacks healthy joints, tissues, and organs. Occurring most often in women of childbearing age (15-44), this disease inflames the lining (or synovium) of joints. It can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of function in joints. When severe, rheumatoid arthritis can deform, or change, a joint. For example, the joints in a person’s finger can become deformed, causing the finger to bend or curve.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects mostly joints of the hands and feet and tends to be symmetrical. This means the disease affects the same joints on both sides of the body (like both hands or both feet) at the same time and with the same symptoms. No other form of arthritis is symmetrical. About two to three times as many women as men have this disease.
This chronic disorder causes pain throughout the tissues that support and move the bones and joints. Pain, stiffness, and localized tender points occur in the muscles and tendons, particularly those of the neck, spine, shoulders, and hips. Fatigue and sleep disturbances may also occur.
When a person has gout, they have higher than normal levels of uric acid in the blood. The body makes uric acid from many of the foods we eat. Too much uric acid causes deposits, called uric acid crystals, to form in the fluid and lining of the joints. The result is an extremely painful attack of arthritis. The most common joint gout affects is the big toe. This disease is more common in men than in women.
- Infectious arthritis
Arthritis can be caused by an infection, either bacterial or viral, such as Lyme disease. When this disease is caused by bacteria, early treatment with antibiotics can ease symptoms and cure the disease.
- Reactive arthritis
This is arthritis that develops after a person has an infection in the urinary tract, bowel, or other organs. People who have this disease often have eye problems, skin rashes, and mouth sores.
- Psoriatic arthritis
Some people who have psoriasis, a common skin problem that causes scaling and rashes, also have arthritis. This disease often affects the joints at the ends of the fingers and can cause changes in the fingernails and toenails. Sometimes the spine can also be affected.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
Also called lupus or SLE, this is an autoimmune disease. When a person has an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks itself, killing healthy cells and tissue, rather than doing its job to protect the body from disease and infection. Lupus can inflame and damage a person’s joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, blood vessels, heart, and brain.
- Ankylosing spondylitis
This disease most often affects the spine, causing pain and stiffness. It can also cause arthritis in the hips, shoulders, and knees. It affects mostly men in their late teenage and early adult years.
- Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
The most common type of arthritis in children, this disease causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of function in the joints. A young person can also have rashes and fevers with this disease.
- Polymyalgia rheumatica
Because this disease involves tendons, muscles, ligaments, and tissues around the joint, symptoms often include pain, aching, and morning stiffness in the shoulders, hips, neck, and lower back. It is sometimes the first sign of giant cell arteritis, a disease of the arteries characterized by inflammation, weakness, weight loss, and fever.
Causing inflammation and weakness in the muscles, this disease can affect the whole body and cause disability.
This condition involves inflammation of the bursa, small, fluid-filled sacs that help reduce friction between bones and other moving structures in the joints. The inflammation may result from arthritis in the joint or injury or infection of the bursa. Bursitis produces pain and tenderness and may limit the movement of nearby joints.
This condition refers to inflammation of tendons (tough cords of tissue that connect muscle to bone) caused by overuse, injury, or a rheumatic condition. Tendinitis produces pain and tenderness and may restrict movement of nearby joints.
What are the symptoms of arthritis?
With so many different types of arthritis, symptoms do vary. Each type affects the body differently although arthritic symptoms generally include swelling and pain or tenderness in one or more joints for more than two weeks, redness or heat in a joint, limitation of motion of a joint, early morning stiffness and skin changes, including rashes.
How can a doctor diagnose arthritis?
Doctors diagnose arthritis with a medical history, physical exam and x-rays. There is no blood test for osteoarthritis.
What you can do?
- Consult a doctor who will determine the type of arthritis you have.
- Rest the joint until the pain subsides to prevent further inflammation.
- To ease the pain or stiffness of the joint, apply heat on the joint for about 15 minutes once or twice a day using a hot water bottle, towel or an infrared lamp.
- Take painkillers or anti-inflammatories, as recommended by your doctor.
- If you are overweight, try to reduce weight to lighten the load on weight-bearing joints.
- Participate in regular exercise.
What your doctor can do for you?
There is no cure for arthritis, so beware of ‘miracle cures’. Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medicine. They may recommend occupational therapy or physiotherapy, which includes exercises and heat treatment. In severe cases, surgery may be suggested, such as a hip or knee replacement. The type of surgery will depend on your age and severity of the disease. In the elderly with severe arthritis, joint replacement can give good results.
Initial treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip or knee is conservative, consisting of rest, avoidance of vigorous weight bearing activities, and the use of non-narcotic analgesic and or anti inflammatory medications. With worsening symptoms a cane or a knee brace may be helpful.
For more severe symptoms, an injection of cortisone into the joint is frequently advised and can be quite helpful. When conservative measures have been exhausted and are no longer helpful, and the arthritis has become disabling, surgery may be recommended.
Treatment of osteoarthritis focuses on decreasing pain and improving joint movement, and may include:
- Exercises to keep joints flexible and improve muscle strength
- Medications to control pain, including paracetamol, corticosteroids and NSAIDs.
- Glucocorticoids injected into joints that are inflamed and not responsive to NSAIDS.
- Heat/cold therapy for temporary pain relief
- Joint protection to prevent strain or stress on painful joints
- Surgery (sometimes) to relieve chronic pain in damaged joints
- Weight control to prevent extra stress on weight-bearing joints
Does exercise really help those who have arthritis?
Exercise is very important because it increases lubrication of the joints and strengthens the surrounding muscles, putting less stress on joints. Exercise in heated swimming pools-hydrotherapy-can bring enormous relief from pain and stiffness. Also studies have shown that exercise helps people with arthritis by reducing joint pain and stiffness and increasing flexibility, muscle strength and energy. It also helps with weight reduction and offers an improved sense of well-being.
Living with arthritis can be difficult. Regaining control through education and and actively working with your arthritis treatment team are two very effective ways of managing symptoms.
More information is available at The Artritis Seminar which is regularly delivered by our Patient and Clinical Coordinator. Please find information on this website, or call 02 9587 4720 for more information.