What is arthritis?
Arthritis refers to a painful condition that affects the musculoskeletal joints. It is also the main cause of disability for people older than 55 years in industrialized countries. Arthritis is marked by the swelling and inflammation of the joints, leading to pain, loss of function, and a reduction in the range of motion. The more severe cases, such as in rheumatoid arthritis, can have the disease progress to the point where it can cause visible deformities.
Several kinds of arthritis can affect the joints. Each has its own presentation of symptoms, and has its own underlying pathology. The most common forms of arthritis include:
- Osteoarthritis: This condition results from the progressive degeneration of the articular cartilage of the joints. The cartilage loses its elasticity over time, becoming stiff, and losing its capacity to serve as a shock absorber. Osteoarthritis causes irritation and damage to the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments, and manifests as pain that worsens through the day and is relieved by rest.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This is a chronic, inflammatory condition that results from an autoimmune reaction to the cells in the synovial membrane (the capsule that lines the joints). Most damage affects the joint lining and the cartilage, and fingers, wrists, knees and elbows are most commonly located. The disease can lead to severe deformity if not treated.
- Gouty arthritis: This condition results from the deposition of uric acid crystals in the joints. The uric acid deposits cause inflammation and severe pain. Attacks of gouty arthritis can last for up to several hours, and often affect the big toe (a condition that is referred to as “podagra”).
What causes arthritis?
The underlying cause of arthritis depends on its classification. While most forms of arthritis manifest as pain and reduced range of motion, this is usually secondary to the inflammation of the affected joints.
- Risk factors for osteoarthritis include obesity, prior damage to the joint, sedentary lifestyle, and age. This condition is most common among the elderly.
- Risk factors and the cause of rheumatoid arthritis have not been clearly defined, although current research points to an autoimmune cause with genetic predispositions.
- Gouty arthritis is associated with elevated levels of uric acid in the blood, which lead to deposition of crystals in the joint. This can be aggravated by poor diet and lifestyle choices.
The final diagnosis will only follow a complete medical history and physical examination. Additional imaging studies such as X-rays, Computerized Tomography (CT) scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans may also be requested. Laboratory examinations, such as blood uric acid, can be requested to differentiate the diagnoses.
How is arthritis treated?
The treatment of arthritis varies with the underlying cause. However, a general rule is that interventions should aim to reduce pain, improve mobility, and improve the quality of life of the patients. Medications for arthritis typically include NSAIDs to treat inflammation and for pain relief. Physical therapy and rehabilitation have been shown to improve joint mobility and patient satisfaction. The exact treatment plan should be made in consultation with a licensed medical specialist.