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Arthritis Overview: Part 1

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Arthritis. Maybe you have it. Certainly you know someone who does. Like graying hair and wrinkles, it’s just a simple, inevitable fact of aging, right?

Well, not really. Arthritis is a very common part of the aging process, and according to the Arthritis Foundation, 46 million Americans suffer from the condition. Yet despite its prevalence, arthritis is still shrouded in mystery. The exact cause is still unknown, and sometimes it affects people you might not expect (hint: it’s not just for the elderly!).

In this two-part arthritis article, I’ll first be discussing common forms of arthritis and the suspected causes. In the second installment, I’ll talk about ways to deal with arthritis if you already have it and some good habits you can establish if you don’t.

The term “arthritis” comes from the Greek word artho, meaning “joint,” and itis, meaning “inflammation.” Arthritis is defined as “inflammation of the joints due to infectious, metabolic, or constitutional causes (Merriam-Webster).” Skeletal evidence shows that arthritis was common in prehistoric peoples and even in some dinosaurs. Humans have long been struggling to understand and treat this condition. In 1715, William Musgrave published De Arthritide Symptomatica, a study of the causes and effects of the disease; since then, our knowledge of arthritis has increased dramatically, yet much remains to be discovered.

According to the CDC, arthritis accounts for 18% or nearly 9 million reports of disability, making it the number one cause of adult disability. But not all arthritis cases are the same. Arthritis may be the primary cause of a person’s symptoms or may appear secondary to another condition, such as gout, lupus, sarcoidosis, Lyme disease, or many others.

Arthritis’ most common form is osteoarthritis. Nicknamed “wear and tear” arthritis, it is the form of arthritis most associated with aging. As the body ages, the joints degenerate, leading to a breakdown of cartilage (the collagen-rich material that covers the ends of bones to create a smoothly-moving joint). Although this “wear and tear” is often seen in the elderly, many people – such as super-athletes, the obese, or those with jobs that require excessive repetitive motion – may begin to see the affects of osteoarthritis at an earlier age.

In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is classified as an autoimmune disease. When the body’s immune system mistakes the healthy synovium (the lining of the joints) for a threatening foreign substance, it begins to attack it, causing it to break down. Other parts of the body may also be affected, such as the lungs, heart, skin, and even the whites of the eye. Although this chronic condition, which afflicts women more often than men, is often attributed to a malfunctioning immune system, genetics may also play a part.

Although it’s not something you want to have in common with your grandchildren, according to the Arthritis Foundation, nearly 300,000 American children suffer from juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or JIA. Idiopathic in the name means “spontaneous” or “unknown” in medical terms. Like rheumatoid arthritis, JIA is characterized by inflammation of the synovium, but that is where the similarities end. Even less is known about JIA; some children may fully recover while others may experience it as a truly chronic condition. Although JIA is being heavily researched, the current train of thought suggests that it appears in genetically predisposed individuals when triggered by environmental factors.

Although arthritis is a common and often times difficult disease to live with, it does not have to keep you from the activities you enjoy. Your physical therapist, occupational therapist, or doctor can help you with ways to manage the pain and discomfort of arthritis, and in the second part of this article, I’ll discuss ways to help make life with arthritis more like life without it (here’s a preview: arthritis as a way to deepen your relationships!).

For your FREE Arthritis Assessment, call 463-0022 today!

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