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Arthritis is the degeneration of the joint’s cartilage, which causes swelling, stiffness and pain.
Roughly 25% of American adults – 58 million individuals – have some form of arthritis.
There’s no cure for arthritis, but there are effective treatments to reduce pain and improve quality of life.
Do your knees, hips or hands always feel sore or achy? If so, you may have arthritis. You may think you’re too young to have this painful condition, but arthritis may surprise you. It can strike anyone at any age.
If you have arthritis, you’re not alone. It’s the most common cause of disability among American adults, affecting nearly 25% of adults in the United States, or more than 58 million people.
Arthritis can be caused by an injury or infection, as well as your family history or an autoimmune condition. The result is the same — you have swelling and tenderness in one or more of your joints. Over time, the pain can worsen, and your joints become stiff. That makes it harder for you to move and do things you enjoy.
“Osteoarthritis is any type of degeneration of the cartilage of a joint. If there’s any type of cartilage wear and tear, we call it arthritis,” says Leslie Yen, M.D., a sports medicine physician with Swedish Spine, Sports & Musculoskeletal Medicine at Cherry Hill. “Sometimes it’s mild. Sometimes it’s severe. It’s a spectrum.”
Fortunately, Dr. Yen says, treatment can reduce your pain and keep you active.
The types of arthritis
Arthritis isn’t a single condition. It refers to more than 100 different types of joint problems. You may develop arthritis if:
- You have a family history of the condition
- You’ve experienced an injury to the affected joint
- You have an autoimmune condition, such as psoriasis or rheumatism
- You smoke
- You are overweight
There are two main types of arthritis.
- Osteoarthritis: This most common type causes a breakdown of your cartilage — the shiny, white tissue at the ends of your bones where your joints are. It can appear after injuries or develop from normal wear and tear on your body. It can affect any joint in your body.
- Inflammatory arthritis: With this autoimmune condition, your immune system gets confused and attacks your cartilage. It can be chronic or happen in spurts, called flares, that cause your arthritis to flip between being active and inactive. Rheumatoid arthritis is one of several types of inflammatory arthritis.
Identifying arthritis early
Everyone’s arthritis experience is different. Your pain may be mild or severe. It can be constant, or it can come and go. Recognizing the signs early can help you get the treatment you need sooner. Talk with a doctor if you’re experiencing any of these common symptoms:
- Difficulty moving or exercising like you used to
- Loss of joint range of motion
- Swelling and stiffness, especially in the morning
- Warmth in the joint
- Tenderness with touch
Available arthritis treatments
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for arthritis. However, treatment can potentially reduce pain, as well as improve function and quality of life.
“Treatment is customized to the individual patient and influenced by patient preference, goals and priorities, as well as symptoms and how well they tolerate those symptoms,” she says. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to handle arthritis pain. I talk with my patients about the pros and cons of each treatment so they understand their options and can make an informed choice.”
Non-surgical arthritis treatment options include:
- Exercise: Exercise is often the best medicine to keep joints happy. Continue to exercise if your pain is at a tolerable level.
- Medication: Over-the-counter oral and topical anti-inflammatory medications, as well as acetaminophen, can relieve mild to moderate osteoarthritis pain. For rheumatoid arthritis, prescription medications, including biologics, target the part of your immune system that triggers inflammation.
- Physical therapy: Specific exercises build your strength, improve your range of motion and teach you how to distribute pressure on your joints.
- Braces: Some braces may provide stability or improve load and pressure distribution to improve function. There are different braces for different conditions, so guidance can be helpful. Generally, avoid wearing braces while sedentary as this can contribute to swelling or even blood clots.
- Injections: There are several options to relieve symptoms. Which one is best depends on the nature of your arthritis and your medical history.
- Cortisone joint injections offer temporary relief, but multiple injections can damage your cartilage. Limit cortisone shots and consider alternatives.
- Viscosupplement injections are only covered by insurance for the knee joint. They contain hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring substance found in the fluid surrounding your joints. It can reduce swelling, relieve pain and improve joint function without harming your cartilage.
- Platelet-rich plasma injections consist of a centrifuged component of your blood to improve the immune environment within the affected joint, decreasing pain and improving quality of life.
If these treatments don’t work, surgery may be an option. Dr. Yen says: “We try to delay a joint replacement until the quality of life cannot be maintained with non-surgical treatment."
Alternative medicine options
You can also choose an alternative method to reduce pain. “There are many things that aren’t part of mainstream medicine that can help arthritis pain,” says Dr. Yen. “You don’t necessarily have to use something that’s a strictly medical approach.”
One common option is acupuncture. This traditional Chinese medicine practice uses thin needles to trigger your body to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that reduce pain, and cortisol, a hormone that reduces inflammation. Clinical studies have shown it can help provide relief.
Some patients have experienced symptom relief using topical anti-inflammatories, such as diclofenac or arnica.
Climate and weather impacts
Is your hip pain worse when it’s cold and rainy? When bad weather makes your joints stiff, you’re less likely to go for a walk or work in your garden.
That can make moving somewhere warm may sound like a good idea, but it’s not necessary, Dr. Yen says.
“There’s a reason why people move south when they retire. Joints generally feel better when they’re warm," she says. "But is that because they truly feel better or because the person’s mood has improved and they’re more active? Should someone move from where they’ve lived their whole life for that reason? Probably not. Treatments do a good job even in areas with damp weather.”
Self-care for happier joints
Maybe your arthritis diagnosis is new, or you’ve had achy knees for years. Either way, Dr. Yen says, you can make changes for better arthritis management:
- Eat a Mediterranean diet. This diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory foods. Choices like berries, olive oil, nuts, whole grains and some fish can reduce inflammation. Avoid processed, packaged and high-sugar foods.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, losing even a few pounds through a healthy diet and an active lifestyle can improve your joint pain.
- Exercise. Physical activity improves joint health. Low-impact exercises, including walking, Pilates, weightlifting, cycling and even light running can be effective. Try for 150 minutes each week.
“Pay attention to how your body responds to exercise,” Dr. Yen says. “Concentrate on exercises that don’t cause much swelling or increase in pain,” she says. “Try to keep your pain to less than 3 out of 10 both during and after exercise.”
Find a doctor
If you have questions about joint pain, contact the spine, sports & musculoskeletal medicine department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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