Arthritis is a common problem, especially among older adults. If you notice pain and stiffness in one or more of your joints, it may be because the cartilage that covers the end of your bones has worn away. Read on to learn more about how to prevent arthritis, or treat the condition if you already have it.
Q: What is arthritis?
A: Arthritis refers to a group of more than 100 conditions that inflame joints and the tissues around them. Osteoarthritis is the most common form, affecting more than 27 million people in the US. It happens when the cartilage between your joints breaks down and causes your bones to rub together painfully.
The second most common form, rheumatoid arthritis, is an autoimmune disease that affects about 1.5 people in the US. Though there is no cure for either type of arthritis, pain and stiffness can be managed with lifestyle interventions.
Q: What are the symptoms of arthritis?
A: Symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Joint pain
- A cracking or grinding noise in the joints
- Deformed joints
- Muscle weakness
- Reduced mobility
People who have rheumatoid arthritis can also experience all of these symptoms. However, as with most autoimmune diseases, this type of arthritis may put you at risk for more serious conditions. If you notice any of the following, seek medical attention as soon as possible:
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Numbness or tingling, especially in the feet and wrists
- Serious infections
- Bone fractures
- Easy bruising
Q: What are the risk factors for arthritis?
A: Though there is still a lot to learn about arthritis, we do know that there are a few things that can increase your risk of developing it. If you have the following factors, there are things you can do to prevent or delay the onset of arthritis:
- An active job: If you need to bend or squat repeatedly for your work, you may be at risk for arthritis in your knees or ankles.
- Obesity: People who are overweight or obese tend to get osteoarthritis more often, and it can be more severe than for people at normal weights.
- Infections: If your joints become infected, this can lead to arthritis. This is why it’s so important to get infections treated as soon as you notice them.
- Injuries: If any of your joints are damaged, you can get osteoarthritis.
However, there are some risk factors you can’t change. These include:
- Family history: Arthritis tends to run in families. If your parents or siblings have any type of arthritis, you are at risk for getting the same type at some point in your life.
- Sex: Women are much more likely to have arthritis than men.
- Age: Older adults are at a higher risk for all types of arthritis than younger people.
Q: How can I find out if I have arthritis?
A: If you have pain, swelling, stiffness, redness or reduced mobility in your joints, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. He or she can run a few different tests to see if you have arthritis, and what kind. These include:
- Physical exams: Your healthcare provider may check the mobility, swelling, warmth or redness of your joints.
- Lab tests: He or she may also take a blood test, or a fluid sample from your joints. This is the best way to see what type of arthritis you have.
- X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans: These can give your healthcare provider a picture of your joints, to see if you have arthritis or something else (like a bone spur) that is causing your symptoms.
Q: Are there any changes I can make to my lifestyle to manage my arthritis, or stop it from getting worse?
A: Although your genes play a big role in whether or not you get arthritis–and what type–there are many steps you can take to reduce pain and improve your mobility. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if any of the following may help you:
- Weight loss. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can reduce stress on your knees, hips, and lower back.
- Most physical activity can improve your muscle strength and range of motion, and can reduce stiffness.
- Heat therapy. Try this by soaking in a warm bath, applying a heat patch, or placing a warm washcloth on the painful joint. You may need to limit your time in a hot tub or bath if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure. Hot water can overheat you, cause dehydration, and raise your blood pressure.
- Cold therapy. This will numb the nerves around your joints, reducing pain and inflammation. Some examples of cold therapy are cold packs, ice massage, soaking in cold water, and over-the-counter cooling sprays and ointments.
- Massage, acupuncture and visits to a chiropractor. These may provide temporary relief of osteoarthritis symptoms.
- Healthy food. A well-balanced meal plan can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower painful inflammation. This is especially important for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Q: Are there any over-the-counter medicines I can take for my arthritis?
A: Yes. These come in two categories:
Topical pain relievers
These may cause your skin to feel hot or cold, which can briefly lower pain. Some products contain:
- Salicylates, the active ingredient found in aspirin.
- Menthol, which makes the skin feel cooler.
- Capsaicin, a hot pepper extract that will cause your skin to feel very warm.
Oral pain relievers
- Acetaminophen is often a first choice for treatment of osteoarthritis because it does not irritate the stomach.
- Ibuprofen and naproxen are also effective but can cause stomach upset, so they are best taken with food. Use only as directed on the product label.
Speak to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about what options are best for you.
Q: What prescription treatments are available for arthritis?
A: Your healthcare provider may prescribe surgery, injections, or oral medicines to lower pain, improve joint mobility, and reduce stiffness. Prescription medicines for arthritis include:
- Anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs): These are the most commonly prescribed medicines for arthritis. While they are available over-the-counter, your healthcare provider may suggest a higher dose, which means you will need a prescription.
- Steroids: These anti-inflammatory drugs are used to treat many types of arthritis, including rheumatoid. They can be taken as a pill or as an injection.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): By lowering the response of your immune system, these medicines stop your body from attacking your joints, which can lower pain and swelling.