Arthritis, a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders, consists of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage, and other connective tissues. These conditions can impair physical activity due to pain and joint destruction.

Despite popular belief, it is not just a disease of old age. It can affect and cause pain to people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, with more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children having some form of arthritis, making it the leading cause of disability in the U.S.

Arthritis is also a prevalent health concern in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as of 2021, around 15% of Australians (about 3.6 million people) have some form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type affecting 9% of the population, followed by rheumatoid arthritis affecting about 4% of Australians.

Arthritis does not discriminate and affects people of all ages, including children, but the risk increases as people age. It’s also more common in females than in males. It can significantly impact individuals’ quality of life and functional ability, with many sufferers reporting moderate to severe pain.

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The management and treatment of arthritis in Australia are multifaceted, involving general practitioners, physiotherapists, rheumatologists, and often orthopedic surgeons. The focus is on improving joint function and managing pain through a combination of medication, physical activity, weight management, and in some cases, surgery. There’s a lot of active research happening in Australia to find better treatments and, hopefully, a cure for different forms of arthritis.

Main Types of Arthritis

Arthritis is not a single disease but rather a way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. There are over 100 types of arthritis and related conditions. Here we will discuss a few of the more common forms:

1. Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a degenerative joint disease that affects millions worldwide. It occurs when the cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away, causing the bone to rub against another bone, leading to pain, swelling, and stiffness. Over time, joints can lose strength, and pain may become chronic. Risk factors include excess weight, family history, age, and previous injury.

2. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting many joints, including those in the hands and feet. In this condition, the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue, including joints, causing painful swelling. Over long periods, the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis can cause bone erosion and joint deformity.

3. Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis affects some people who have psoriasis – a condition that features red patches of skin topped with silvery scales. Most people develop psoriasis first and are later diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, but joint problems can sometimes begin before skin patches appear. It features joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, affecting any part of your body, including your fingertips and spine.

4. Gout

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Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis that develops in people with high levels of uric acid in the blood. The acid can form needle-like crystals in a joint and cause sudden, severe episodes of pain, tenderness, redness, warmth, and swelling. Gout is often seen in the big toe but can affect any joint.

5. Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)

Formerly known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, it is the most common type of arthritis in children under the age of 16. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis can cause persistent joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. Some children may experience symptoms for only a few months, while others have symptoms for many years.

Each of these types of arthritis has different causes, risk factors, and effects on the body. For all types of arthritis, early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent joint damage. If you have joint pain, stiffness, or swelling for over a few weeks, make an appointment with your doctor.

What Causes Arthritis

Arthritis is caused by a reduction in the normal amount of cartilage tissue through wear and tear throughout life. Cartilage is a firm but flexible connective tissue in your joints. It protects the joints by absorbing the pressure and shock created when you move and put stress on them.

  • Inherited Factors: Certain types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can run in families.
  • Age: The risk of developing arthritis, specifically osteoarthritis, increases with age.
  • Gender: Many types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, occur more frequently in women.
  • Previous Joint Injury: People who have had a joint injury are more likely to develop arthritis in that joint eventually.
  • Obesity: Carrying around extra pounds puts stress on joints, particularly knees, hips, and spine, and increases the chance of getting arthritis.

Symptoms of Arthritis

Arthritis symptoms can vary greatly depending on the type and severity of the condition. However, most types of arthritis are characterized by issues related to the joints. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

  • Pain: Arthritic pain can occur in one or more joints. While the pain is often chronic, it may wax and wane and may be isolated to the body part affected.
  • Stiffness: Stiffness in the joints can be a significant problem, particularly in the morning or after periods of inactivity. This can result in a reduced range of motion.
  • Swelling: Swelling or inflammation of the joints is common and can lead to stiffness and pain. Swelling lasting for more than three days or happening more than three times a month requires a visit to the doctor.
  • Redness: Redness around the affected joint results from increased blood flow due to inflammation. It is more commonly seen in cases of gout and infectious arthritis.
  • Decreased range of motion: Over time, the joint’s mobility may decrease due to damage to the joint surfaces or because pain makes movement difficult.

It’s important to note that arthritis can cause symptoms beyond joint pain and stiffness. Some forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can affect multiple organs and cause widespread symptoms. In such cases, patients may experience fatigue, loss of appetite, and fever. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have persistent symptoms or suspect you may have arthritis.

Various Diagnoses of Arthritis

Diagnosing arthritis involves a comprehensive evaluation of symptoms and a physical examination. Doctors typically look for key signs such as joint swelling, redness, warmth, and limited range of motion.

A doctor injecting hyaluronic acid rich platelet into a patient's knee suffering from arthritis.
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The diagnostic process often includes the following:

  • Medical History: The doctor will start by understanding the patient’s medical history and the onset and pattern of symptoms.
  • Physical Examination: During the physical exam, the doctor will check the patient’s joints for signs of inflammation and deformity, comparing them to the unaffected joints on the other side of the body. The doctor will also check the patient’s reflexes and muscle strength.
  • Laboratory Tests: Doctors often use blood tests to detect biological markers of rheumatoid arthritis and other types. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis often have an antibody called rheumatoid factor (RF) in their blood. Other common tests include the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), C-reactive protein (CRP), and complete blood count.
  • Joint Fluid Analysis: For this test, a needle is inserted into the joint to extract a sample of the synovial fluid that lubricates the joint. The fluid is then tested for inflammation, immune proteins, infection, or crystals associated with different types of arthritis, such as gout or pseudogout.
  • Imaging Tests: These tests can detect problems within the joint that may be causing the symptoms. X-rays can show bone damage and cartilage loss, while ultrasound and MRI scans can reveal early signs of rheumatoid arthritis.

General Methods to Start Getting Your Arthritis Treated

While there is no cure for arthritis, many treatment options are available to help manage pain and keep people active.

  • Medications: These can help reduce pain and inflammation. Over-the-counter options include acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy can be beneficial for some types of arthritis. Exercise can improve the range of motion and strengthen the muscles surrounding joints.
  • Surgery: If conservative measures don’t help, your doctor may suggest surgery, such as joint repair, replacement, or fusion.

Living with arthritis can be challenging, but there are ways to cope with the pain. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep will help you stay positive and manage your symptoms. Always consult with your doctor about your symptoms and the best treatment plan for you.

Managing Your Arthritis

Managing your arthritis is a vital aspect of living a fulfilling and pain-free life. People with arthritis often struggle with ongoing pain and swelling, which can greatly impact their daily activities. However, there are various strategies and treatments available to help you manage your arthritis effectively.

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One of the primary goals of managing arthritis is to achieve pain relief. This can be accomplished through medication, physical therapy, or the use of assistive devices. Additionally, adopting a healthy lifestyle and making certain lifestyle changes can also play a significant role in alleviating pain and swelling associated with arthritis. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce stress on joints and improve overall mobility.

Furthermore, alternative therapies such as acupuncture or meditation can complement traditional treatments and provide further pain relief. The treatment process requires a multifaceted approach, but by combining various techniques and seeking the guidance of healthcare professionals, you can find a routine that works best for you and helps you lead a more comfortable and active life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Arthritis

What is the leading cause of arthritis?

The main cause of arthritis depends on the type. For instance, osteoarthritis is usually caused by wear and tear on the joints over time, or due to an injury. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that it occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in the joints.

How is arthritis usually treated?

Arthritis treatment typically aims to reduce pain, minimize joint damage, and improve or maintain function and quality of life. It can include a combination of medication, physical therapy, lifestyle changes such as weight loss and exercise, and in some cases, surgery. The treatment plan often depends on the type of arthritis pain, the severity of symptoms, and the patient’s overall health.

What are the five symptoms of arthritis?

The five common symptoms of arthritis include:

  1. Joint pain
  2. Stiffness, particularly in the morning or after periods of inactivity
  3. Swelling or inflammation around the joints
  4. Redness around the affected joint
  5. Decreased range of motion in the affected joints

At what age does arthritis usually start?

It can start at any age. However, the risk of arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis, increases with age. Most people start to see symptoms after the age of 40. Rheumatoid arthritis also often begins between the ages of 40 and 60, while juvenile idiopathic arthritis affects children under the age of 16.