Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints. A joint is the area where two bones meet. There are over 100 different types of arthritis.
Arthritis involves the breakdown of cartilage. Normal cartilage protects a joint and allows it to move smoothly. Cartilage also absorbs shock when pressure is placed on the joint, such as when you walk. Without the normal amount of cartilage, the bones rub together. This causes, swelling (inflammation), and stiffness.
Joint inflammation may result from:
- An autoimmune disease (the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue)
- Broken bone
- General "wear and tear" on joints
- Infection, usually by bacteria or virus
In most cases, the joint inflammation goes away after the cause goes away or is treated. Sometimes it does not. When this happens, you have chronic arthritis. Arthritis may occur in men or women. Osteoarthritis is the most common type.
Other, more common types of arthritis include:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history.
The physical exam may show:
- Fluid around a joint
- Warm, red, tender joints
- Difficulty moving a joint (called "limited range of motion")
Some types of arthritis may cause joint deformity. This may be a sign of severe, untreated rheumatoid arthritis.
Blood tests and joint x-rays are often done to check for infection and other causes of arthritis.
Your doctor may also remove a sample of joint fluid with a needle and send it to a lab to be checked.
The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function, and prevent further joint damage. The underlying cause often cannot be cured.
Lifestyle changes are the preferred treatment for osteoarthritis and other types of joint swelling. Exercise can help relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength. Your health care team can help you design an exercise program that is best for you.
Exercise programs may include:
- Low-impact aerobic activity (also called endurance exercise)
- Range of motion exercises for flexibility
- Strength training for muscle tone
Your health care provider may suggest physical therapy. This might include:
- Heat or ice
- Splints or orthotics to support joints and help improve their position; this is often needed for rheumatoid arthritis
- Water therapy
Other things you can do include:
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night and taking naps during the day can help you recover from a flare-up more quickly, and may even help prevent flare-ups.
- Avoid staying in one position for too long.
- Avoid positions or movements that place extra stress on your sore joints.
- Change your home to make activities easier. For example, install grab bars in the shower, the tub, and near the toilet.
- Try stress-reducing activities, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi.
- Eat a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, which contain important vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin E.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, and herring), flaxseed, rapeseed (canola) oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
- Avoid excessive alcohol and smoking.
- Apply capsaicin cream over your painful joints. You may feel improvement after applying the cream for 3 to 7 days.
- Lose weight, if you are overweight. Weight loss can greatly improve joint pain in the legs and feet.
Medicines may be prescribed along with lifestyle changes. All medicines have some risks. You should be closely followed by a doctor when taking arthritis medicines.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is often the first medicine tried. Take up to 4000 mg a day (two arthritis-strength Tylenol every 8 hours). To prevent damage to your liver, do not take more than the recommended dose. Since multiple medications are available without a prescription that also contain acetaminophen, you will need to include them in the 4000 mg per day maximum. Also, avoid alcohol when taking acetaminophen.
- Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that can relieve arthritis pain. However, they can carry risks when used for a long time. Possible side effects include heart attack, stroke, stomach ulcers, bleeding from the digestive tract, and kidney damage.
- Biologics are used for the treatment of autoimmune arthritis. They include etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira), abatacept (Orencia), rituximab (Rituxan), golimumab (Simponi), certolizumab (Cimzia), and tocilizumab (Actemra). These drugs can improve the quality of life for many patients, but can have serious side effects.
- Corticosteroids ("steroids") help reduce inflammation. They may be injected into painful joints or given by mouth.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are used to treat autoimmune arthritis. They include methotrexate, sulfasalazine, hydroxychloroquine, and leflunomide.
- Immunosuppressants such as azathioprine or cyclophosphamide are used to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis when other medications have not worked.
- For gout, allopurinol (Zyloprim) or febuxostat (Uloric) may be used to lower uric acid.
It is very important to take your medicines as directed by your doctor. If you are having problems doing so (for example, because of side effects), you should talk to your doctor. Also make sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you are taking, including vitamins and supplements bought without a prescription.
SURGERY AND OTHER TREATMENTS
In some cases, surgery may be done if other treatments have not worked. This may include:
- Joint replacement, such as a total knee joint replacement
A few arthritis-related disorders can be completely cured with proper treatment.
Most forms of arthritis however are long-term (chronic) conditions.
Complications of arthritis include:
- Long-term (chronic) pain
- Difficulty performing daily activities
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor if:
- Your joint pain persists beyond 3 days.
- You have severe unexplained joint pain.
- The affected joint is significantly swollen.
- You have a hard time moving the joint.
- Your skin around the joint is red or hot to the touch.
- You have a fever or have lost weight unintentionally.
Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent joint damage. If you have a family history of arthritis, tell your doctor, even if you do not have joint pain.
Avoiding excessive, repeated motions may help protect you against osteoarthritis.
Joint inflammation; Joint degeneration
Huizinga TW, Pincus T. In the clinic. Rheumatoid arthritis. Ann Intern Med.
Neustadt DH. Osteoarthritis. In: Bope ET, Kellerman RD, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2013. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 9.
O’Dell JR. Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 71.
Update Date 1/22/2014
Updated by: Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.