Office of Women's Health

Facts About Arthritis
What is arthritis?

The term arthritis refers to about 120 different diseases that can affect the joints, muscles and other soft tissues. The three most common forms are osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis, affecting an estimated 21 million adults in this country. Commonly referred to as a “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis involves destruction of the cartilage, the cushion or shock absorber on the ends of the bones.

Fibromyalgia is a disease that causes pain and stiffness in the tissues that support and move the bones and joints. It is a common disease that affects approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population or about 5 million people. Widespread pain and localized tender points occur in the muscles and tendons especially those of the neck, spine, shoulders and hips. Other common symptoms include significant fatigue, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbance.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that primarily affects the lining of the joint. An important feature of this inflammatory illness is that the body’s own immune system targets its own tissue as an enemy. Joint swelling over a long period of time can lead to deformity and loss of function in the joint. Because rheumatoid arthritis affects the entire body, many people also experience fatigue, fever and a general sense of feeling unwell. Rheumatoid arthritis affects over 2 million Americans.

Other types of arthritis include gout, systemic lupus erythematosus, juvenile arthritis, scleroderma, infectious arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

How Common is Arthritis?

Arthritis can affect people of all ages, including children. In Illinois in 1990, about 16 percent of the state’s population - nearly 2 million people - suffered from arthritis or other rheumatic conditions. In 2000, it was estimated that about 26 percent of the adults in Illinois (approximately 2.4 million people) suffered from arthritis. As the state’s population continues to age, the number of people affected by arthritis is expected to continue to increase.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of arthritis can include pain, swelling and stiffness in joints or the inability to move a joint normally. In some types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, joints can become red, warm, swollen and painful, and the person may feel “sick all over.” Other symptoms are unexplained fever, fatigue, weight loss and swollen lymph glands. Symptoms typically last more than two weeks.

Who is at risk?

Non-modifiable risk factors are those that cannot be prevented or changed. They are:

  • Men and women 45 years of age and older
  • Females 15 years of age and older
  • Someone with a family history of arthritis
  • Being African-American

Modifiable risk factors are those that can be prevented or changed by an individual. These include -

  • Obesity
  • Past injuries to joints
  • Infections, such as Lyme disease
  • Certain occupations that require frequent repetitive joint activities, for example, kneeling or stooping

How is arthritis diagnosed?

A diagnosis of arthritis is based on the pattern of symptoms, medical history, family history, physical examination, X-rays and lab tests.

How is arthritis treated?

Appropriate management can help people with arthritis live healthy and independent lives. A rheumatologist (an arthritis specialist) can be very helpful in evaluating and treating types of arthritis that require specialized drug therapy. An important aspect of successfully dealing with arthritis pain and disability is self-management. It is important for patients to learn about their disease and to take part in their own care. Working with health care professionals allows a person to share in decision making and gain a sense of control.

The following are important self-management skills:

  • Exercise is important for maintaining healthy and strong muscles, for preserving joint mobility and for maintaining flexibility. Exercise also can help people to sleep better, to maintain a positive attitude and to lose weight. It can reduce pain, too. Before beginning any exercise routine, ask your doctor to help you create a program that meets your specific arthritis needs.
  • Rest also is important. Arthritis may cause tiredness and muscle weakness. A rest or short nap that does not interfere with nighttime sleep may be useful in controlling pain. Some people find stress reduction and biofeedback helpful.
  • Assistive devices can be used to reduce stress on certain joints. For example, braces or canes may help reduce stress on the knees. Jar grippers or similar gadgets may help reduce stress on the small joints. Research shows that patients who take part in their own care report less pain, make fewer visits to their doctor and enjoy a better quality of life.

When should you get help?

Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are very important in managing arthritis. Physicians now believe that damage to bones begins within the first two years that a person has the disease. Early diagnosis can decrease symptoms and long-term complications. A person should see a health care professional if symptoms of pain or swelling in multiple joints on both sides of the body develop.

More information about arthritis can be obtained by contacting:

National Women’s Health Information Center

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

National Institute on Aging