Determining Whether You Have Arthritis

Monday, May 01, 2006

The number of Americans with arthritis or chronic joint symptoms is estimated at 66 million, with women being affected more than men. Approximately 20 million people live with chronic joint symptoms, but have not been evaluated by a physician. With that said, arthritis is a prevalent chronic health issue and is the nation’s leading cause of disability in people 15 and older.

Arthritis related costs are estimated at $82 billion annually. This includes direct medical care costs as well as other expenses such as lost wages and lost production due to disability.

There are many misconceptions regarding arthritis. Half of Americans with arthritis do not believe that anything can be done to help them. While it is true that most chronic arthritic conditions have no present cure, much can be done to reduce pain, improve function, and improve the quality of life of people who have it. Many new medications have been developed over the past few years that have greatly improved the conditions of patients with, for example, rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a general term used to describe a group of more than 100 conditions that affect the musculoskelatal system. Arthritis related joint problems can present themselves as pain, stiffness, or swelling. Damage also occurs to joint cartilage and surrounding structures. This damage might possibly lead to joint weakness, instability, and deformity, which can result in difficulty performing routine activities such as walking, stair climbing or opening jars.

With certain types of arthritis, joint problems might not be the full extent of the condition. Many forms are systemic in nature, and can cause damage to other organs of the body, include the heart, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, and skin.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and more prevalent in patients older than 60. Other common types of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis, gout, juvenile arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and arthritis associated with connective tissue disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint condition in which the cartilage of a joint deteriorates. As the cartilage breaks down, the underlying bone changes by becoming thick and forming bony growths, known as spurs. This may lead to increased pain and loss of joint motion. Typically, the joint pain is worse following increased use of the joint, but also if the joint is used too little (such as a short duration of stiffness upon waking in the morning).

Osteoarthritis commonly affects the knees, hips, spine, finger and thumb joints, and the big toe. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include being overweight, previous injury to the joint, weakness of surrounding musculature, having other types of arthritis (especially inflammatory types), and heredity. Therapy includes a combination of physical therapy and exercise, weight control, education, medication, and possibly surgery.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a common form of arthritis that causes inflammation in the lining of the joints. Affected joints are usually warm, swollen, painful, and restricted with regard to range of motion. Untreated, rheumatoid arthritis can cause significant and non-reversible damage to the joints leading to permanent disability.

A prominent feature of rheumatoid arthritis is morning stiffness that lasts for an hour or longer. Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed based on face to face evaluation with a physician, as well as through laboratory and xray testing. Medical therapy for rheumatoid arthritis has improved greatly over the past few years. This has resulted in significant reduction of pain and destruction, and ultimately to a decrease in disability.

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that is associated with muscular pain, fatigue, disordered sleep, and mood changes. It is a form of chronic pain syndrome, and inflicts pain and stiffness around the joints as well as in the muscles and bones. Fibromyalgia is often found in patients that have other chronic medical conditions. There are no specific laboratory or radiographic tests available to specifically diagnose fibromyalgia, therefore diagnosis is based on criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology.

Fibromyalgia is much more common in women than in men. The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. Therapy consists of a multi-faceted approach to include exercise and physical therapy, behavioral modification, improved sleep, and different types of medications.

Where can I find more information?

There are many resources available for additional information. A good place to start would consulting your physician, who might decide that you require an evaluation by a rheumatologist or other joint specialist. Another great source here in Baton Rouge is the Arthritis Association of Louisiana. They offer local support, education, exercise classes, as well as Camp JAM (a camp for children with arthritis conditions) during the summer.

Ronald P. Ceruti, Jr., MD, FACRDr. Ronald Ceruti
Specializing in Rheumatology