The literal meaning of the word ‘Arthritis’ is - inflammation of one or more joints. Joint, as we all know, is an area of the body where two different bones meet. The function of the joint is to move the body parts connected by its bones. Medical name for joint pain is ‘arthralgia’. Arthritis can manifest itself in more than 100 forms. Arthritis could be because of wear and tear of cartilage. This form of arthritis is called osteoarthritis. Arthritis can also be because of inflammation resulting from an overactive immune system. This form of arthritis is called rheumatoid arthritis.
The ends of bones in a joint are covered by a smooth tissue of cartilage. The cartilage gives ‘cushioning effect’. In the absence of cartilage, there would be friction in bone-on-bone contact. A fibrous envelope, called the synovium, encloses the joints. Synovium produces a fluid that helps reduce friction and wear and tear of joint. Ligaments connect the bones and keep the joints stable. Joints are powered by muscles and tendons. Muscles and tendons also help joint to move.
Arthritis is the most common chronic illness in the US. Arthritis affects men and women, children and adults. Worldwide, approximately 350 million people have arthritis. This figure for US is 40 million, of which over a quarter million are children. Number of Americans suffering from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is 21 million and 2.1 million respectively. Arthritis shows slight gender bias, with 60% of sufferers being women. More than half of arthritis sufferers are under 65 years of age.
Different forms of arthritis have different causes. Causes could be injury (leading to osteoarthritis), abnormal metabolism, inheritance, infectious; in some cases the cause of arthritis may be unclear. Arthritis is a rheumatic disease. Rheumatic diseases are illnesses with differing features, treatments, complications, and prognosis. The reason all rheumatic diseases are under one category is that they have a tendency to affect joints, muscles, ligaments, cartilage, tendons. Many rheumatic diseases have potential to affect the internal body areas.
Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are available over the counter and can be used for controlling pain and inflammation in the joints. There are prescription medications too. These are prescribed after taking into consideration the type of arthritis, its severity, and the patient’s general physical health. It’s not safe for patients with ulcers, asthma, kidney or liver diseases to take anti-inflammatory medications. When the patient’s pain becomes unbearable, doctors may give injections of cortisone into the joint. This helps in bringing temporary relief from pain and swelling. A word of caution here: repeated, frequent injections into the same joint can damage it and thereby cause undesirable side effects. For lubricating joint, one may also resort to viscosupplementation or injection of hyaluronic acid. This is generally performed in the knee.
For relieving stress and strain on arthritic joints one may take recourse to canes, crutches, walkers, or splints. One should also learn methods of performing daily activities that are less stressful to painful joints. For decreasing stiffness and strengthening the weakened muscles around the joint one should take help of certain exercises and physical therapy.