The word arthritis literally means inflammation of the joint (swelling). It is a word that is commonly used to describe several joint diseases. Most people use the word when referring to persistent joint and back problems.
Arthritis can affect any of the joints throughout the body, limiting movement and causing significant pain. Over time, it can deform joints, particularly in the hands and feet. Although arthritis can affect people of all ages including children, it most commonly develops in adults aged 40 to 50 years. For some inexplicable reason, women are more likely to develop arthritis than men.
Arthritis is characterized by attacks, followed by periods where the disease appears inactive (remission). Attacks, much like remission periods, can last anywhere from a few days, to a few weeks, to a few months. Attacks are characterized by fatigue, joint stiffness (especially in the morning) and pain.
Only physicians can diagnose arthritis. Blood tests, x-rays and a variety of other examinations are performed to confirm the diagnosis. To control arthritis and prevent joint deformities, early and aggressive treatment is important.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis. There are, however, certain drugs that can help alleviate the pain and slow the progression of the disease, thereby preventing deformities and long-term complications associated with arthritis.
The most common medications for arthritis are anti-inflammatories (ex: Naprosyn®, Advil®, Celebrex®). They control daily inflammation and relieve pain. It takes 2 to 4 weeks however, for these drugs to have an effect. Furthermore, they must be taken regularly to be effective. Because these drugs tend to irritate the stomach, they are typically taken with food to reduce this unpleasant adverse effect.
When there is persistent inflammation in several joints for more than 6 weeks, stronger medications may be necessary. Drugs known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (ex: methotrexate, Plaquenil®) can be combined with the anti-inflammatories. Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs slow the biological processes responsible for chronic inflammation.
When dealing with an aggressive form of arthritis or one that has not responded to any of the above-mentioned treatments, biological response modifiers (ex: Enbrel®, Humira®, Remicade®) are required. These medications rapidly reduce arthritis symptoms as well as the inflammation responsible for deforming the joints. They are designed to suppress some of the functions of the immune system that cause rheumatoid arthritis. By suppressing these functions however, these drugs make one more susceptible to infections. Since these drugs are injected, irritation around the injection site is the most common adverse effect.
During attacks, it is important that the affected joints not be immobilized. It is recommended that you engage in gentle exercise in an effort to maintain ease and range of motion. Physicians may suggest such exercises or may recommended physiotherapy.
Living with Arthritis
People living with arthritis need to make frequent changes to their routine when certain daily tasks become too painful or impossible to perform. While medication can help control the pain, people with arthritis often need to find new ways to accomplish certain tasks. Occupational therapists help people with arthritis overcome such obstacles by giving them practical tricks or advice on how to use specialized tools.
The Difference between Arthritis and Osteoarthritis
Many people confuse the terms arthritis and osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is characterized by a degeneration of the cartilage at the bone ends where the joints meet. This causes opposing bone surfaces to rub against one another, causing pain. The likelihood of developing osteoarthritis increases with age. It can appear quite rapidly however, when there is significant wear and tear on joints which is often the case with athletes and manual labourers, for example.
As for arthritis, it is characterized by inflammation rather than degeneration of the cartilage. Inflammation caused by arthritis can lead to a variety of complications including bone degradation and joint deformities. Age is not a risk factor with arthritis. In fact, it can affect children and young adults. The causes of arthritis are many and include infection, injury, autoimmune diseases and hereditary factors.
For more information or for support:
The Arthritis Society