Athritis – causes, symptoms and treatment

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint.

Types of arthritis

The two most common types of arthritis are:

  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis

Osteoarthritis

It most often develops in adults who are in their late 40s or older. It’s also more common in women and people with a family history of the condition. However, it can occur at any age as a result of an injury or be associated with other joint-related conditions, such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis initially affects the smooth cartilage lining of the joint. This makes movement more difficult than usual, leading to pain and stiffness.

Once the cartilage lining starts to roughen and thin out, the tendons and ligaments have to work harder. This can cause swelling and the formation of bony spurs, called osteophytes.

Severe loss of cartilage can lead to bone rubbing on bone, altering the shape of the joint and forcing the bones out of their normal position.

The most commonly affected joints are those in the:

  • hands
  • spine
  • knees
  • hips

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid and osteoarthritis are two different conditions. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system targets affected joints, which leads to pain and swelling.

The outer covering (synovium) of the joint is the first place affected. This can then spread across the joint, leading to further swelling and a change in the joint’s shape. This may cause the bone and cartilage to break down.

People with rheumatoid arthritis can also develop problems with other tissues and organs in their body.

Other types of arthritis and related conditions

  • Ankylosing spondylitis – a long-term inflammatory condition that mainly affects the bones, muscles and ligaments of the spine, leading to stiffness and joints fusing together. Other problems can include the swelling of tendons, eyes and large joints.
  • Cervical spondylosis – also known as degenerative osteoarthritis, cervical spondylitis affects the joints and bones in the neck, which can lead to pain and stiffness.
  • Fibromyalgia – causes pain in the body’s muscles, ligaments and tendons.
  • Lupus – an autoimmune condition that can affect many different organs and the body’s tissues.
  • Gout – a type of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the body. This can be left in joints (usually affecting the big toe) but can develop in any joint. It causes intense pain, redness and swelling.
  • Psoriatic arthritis – an inflammatory joint condition that can affect people with psoriasis.
  • Enteropathic arthritis – a form of chronic, inflammatory arthritis associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the two best-known types being ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. About one in five people with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis will develop enteropathic arthritis. The most common areas affected by inflammation are the peripheral (limb) joints and the spine.
  • Reactive arthritis – this can cause inflammation of the joints, eyes and urethra (the tube that urine passes through). It develops shortly after an infection of the bowel, genital tract or, less frequently, after a throat infection.
  • Secondary arthritis – a type of arthritis that can develop after a joint injury and sometimes occurs many years afterwards.

Symptoms of arthritis

The symptoms of arthritis you experience will vary depending on the type you have.

This is why it’s important to have an accurate diagnosis if you have:

  • joint pain, tenderness and stiffness
  • inflammation in and around the joints
  • restricted movement of the joints
  • warm, red skin over the affected joint
  • weakness and muscle wasting

 

Treating arthritis

There’s no cure for arthritis, but there are many treatments that can help slow down the condition.

For osteoarthritis, medications are often prescribed, including:

  • painkillers
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • corticosteroids

In severe cases, the following surgical procedures may be recommended:

  • arthroplasty (joint replacement)
  • arthodesis (joint fusion)
  • osteotomy (where a bone is cut and re-aligned)

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis aims to slow down the condition’s progress and minimise joint inflammation or swelling. This is to try and prevent damage to the joints. Recommended treatments include:

  • analgesics (painkillers)
  • disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – a combination of treatments is often recommended
  • physiotherapy
  • regular exercise 

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