Arthritis, inflammation of one or more joints, is the most common cause of disability in the United States, limiting the activities of millions of adults. So, what causes arthritis? Cartilage, which is the tough but flexible tissue that covers the ends of your bones, normally protects and cushions a joint, allowing it to move smoothly. When this covering starts to break down, your bones rub together, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. This is arthritis.
Joint inflammation may result from an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis, which is when your immune system mistakenly attacks health tissue, or a broken bone, or general wear and tear on joints from osteoarthritis, or an infection from bacteria or a virus. If you have arthritis, you'll probably know it before you see your doctor. You may have joint pain, joint swelling, a reduced ability to move your joint, redness of the skin around your joint, and stiffness, especially in the morning.
So, what do you do about arthritis?
Your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms. Your doctor might find that you have fluid around a joint, warm, red, tender joints, and trouble moving your joints. You may have blood tests and x-rays to check for infection or other arthritis causes. Your doctor may take a sample of joint fluid with a needle and send it to a lab for examination. Once your doctor confirms that you have arthritis, your treatment will focus on reducing your pain, improving your mobility, and limiting further joint damage.
Lifestyle changes are a big part of the treatment for arthritis. Exercise can help relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength. Your health care team can help you design an exercise program that is best for you. Physical therapy may also be very helpful. You may use treatments like heat or ice, splints or orthotics to support your joints, water therapy, and even massage. You can take other steps to ease your pain. For example, sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night and taking naps during the day can help you recover from a flare-up more quickly, and may even help prevent them.
Avoid staying in one position for too long, and avoid positions or movements that place extra stress on your joints. Install grab bars in the shower, tub, and near the toilet, to help you get around easier. Try stress reducing activities, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Get more fruits, vegetables, cold water fish, and nuts into your diet. Weight loss through dieting and exercise can also take pressure off your joints. After lifestyle factors, medicine can help relieve your arthritis pain. If over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin are not enough, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicines. Most forms of arthritis are long-term, and life-long, conditions. But if you make lifestyle changes, and work with your health care team to manage your pain, you should be able to move more freely and hopefully feel less pain.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.