Arthritis 101

November 21, 2017

As a physical therapist, I applaud a proactive approach to health but, as we all
know, navigating the healthcare system in search of clues to our symptoms and
medical concerns can be a daunting task, filled with endless internet searches that
turn up conflicting and confusing answers. In this, my debut Healthcare News column,
I hope to shed some light on the prevalence of, and disability caused by arthritis, thus
beginning a tradition of providing readers with user-friendly health information.
From the Greek ‘arthron’ meaning joint and ‘itis’ referring to inflammation, arthritis is
actually a symptom, not a specific disease, belonging to any condition that affects the
joints. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are over 50 million Americans
that suffer from some form of joint disease. And let’s not forget our youngest of those
afflicted. According to the Arthritis Foundation, nearly 300,000 children under
the age of 18 suffer from some degree of chronic arthritis.

Of the more than 100 types of conditions that can affect the joints in various ways,
degenerative arthritis accounts for more than 30 million adult sufferers in the United
States. Known more commonly as “wear and tear” arthritis, degenerative joint
disease or osteoarthritis, this type of arthritis can affect any joint in the body, and
increases in prevalence with advancing age. Symptoms may vary in severity, but will
most likely include any combination of joint pain, swelling, stiffness, muscle weakness,
limited range of motion and joint deformity due to erosion of the cushioning cartilage
within the joint. Although commonplace in the joints of the hands, feet, back, neck and
shoulders, arthritis is perhaps most troublesome and activity-limiting when it surfaces
in the large weight bearing joints of the lower body, such as the knees and hips.
Inflammatory arthritis results from a faulty immune system mistakenly attacking its own
joints. In diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, lupus,
inflammatory bowel disease, psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, to name
a few, joint warmth, redness, swelling, pain and varying degrees of deformity often
accompany disruption of other body systems and structures, such as skin, eyes,
connective tissue, lungs and heart. Infectious (septic) or reactive arthritis is usually
triggered by bacteria, but can also be viral or fungal in origin. In septic arthritis, the
offending bacteria is found within the involved joint, but in reactive arthritis, the
joint is reacting to an infection elsewhere in the body, as is seen with Lyme’s Disease,
Fifth’s Disease, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), Reiter’s syndrome, and others. Gout,
or metabolic arthritis, is due to elevated levels of uric acid in the blood, which in turn
leads to painful crystal formation within the joint. Gout, which can be quite debilitating,
is known for its remissions (no symptoms) and exacerbations (painful flares). Hemorrhagic
arthritis refers to conditions that will produce bleeding into a joint, such as hemophilia or
sickle cell anemia.

Although this article only touches on some of the many conditions and diseases that
present with joint inflammation, it is easy to see that arthritis leads the pack in the sheer
number of afflictions that can produce profound disability and loss of functional
independence. That said, there are many ways to manage arthritis, including, but not
limited to, physician-prescribed medications; non-medication related therapies, such as
physical and occupational therapies; acupuncture; exercise; thermal relief, such as
ice and heat; weight management; assistive devices for ease of walking or joint protection,
and surgical intervention. Check back next month for a more detailed
review of some surgical and non-surgical treatment options to manage arthritis and its
symptoms.