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Not the Usual Aches and Pains: Know the Different Types of Arthritis

Arthritis affects 27 million Americans, so it's likely that you know someone who lives with the condition -- but trouble arises from recognizing arthritis in ourselves. A medical problem that largely occurs in people over 40 (but can start at any age), arthritis is often dismissed as simple aches and pains -- signs of "getting old." How can you get treatment for one of several types of arthritis if you're not able to tell that something is truly wrong?

You can start by understanding the two most common types of arthritis and the differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Key Differences

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a disease of the entire joint, including the cartilage, bone, ligaments, and joint lining. Cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in your joints can wear down. It's often accompanied by an inflammation in the joint lining (the synovium). Eventually, the joints become largely bone on bone, leading to stiffening and pain.

Most commonly affecting hips, knees, and hands, OA is often described as driven by wear and tear, as it's often caused by:

  • General lifelong overuse.
  • Athletic overuse of specific joints.
  • Certain jobs that require continuous lifting or movement.
  • A strain, sprain, or other injury to the joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) differs from its cousin in several ways:

  • It is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body's immune system, which should fight infection, actually triggers inflammation. The primary cause of RA has not yet been established, however.
  • It usually appears in symmetrical patterns. If you have this type of arthritis in one hand, for example, you'll likely have it in the other hand.
  • It's not limited to the joints but can also affect the blood and organs of the body.
  • It involves the fluid in joints and can cause deformities such as knobby, crooked fingers.
  • It's most often found in wrist and finger joints.

Osteoarthritis 101

Some eight out of 10 people with osteoarthritis have limitation of movement, making OA one of five leading causes of disability among nonhospitalized adults

In the beginning, general symptoms, such as pain and stiffness in the morning, may be dismissed as "just getting older." As the condition worsens, however, you'll sense a limited range of motion in your knees, hip, or back. When the joint bends, you can hear cracking or clicking. Joints will swell, and if your hip joints are affected, you may first feel pain in the knee or thigh.

There is no cure, but symptoms can be treated initially with a focus on

  • Losing weight if needed.
  • The right exercise routine.
  • Over-the-counter medications (ibuprofen or acetaminophen).
  • Physical therapy, which helps increase flexibility.
  • Assistive devices, such as a cane.

Options for more serious pain include prescription medications, such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) or opioids, or corticosteroid injections to limit swelling. If deterioration is advanced, you may need a total joint replacement, in which a metal, ceramic, or plastic prosthesis is added.

One of the best ways to manage osteoarthritis is simple: Get moving. If appropriate for your symptoms, a walking routine or regular aerobic exercise class should help work out the kinks and stiffness in those joints, and range-of-motion exercises will maintain flexibility and reduce stiffness.

Rheumatoid Basics

Rheumatoid arthritis is most likely to develop in people after the age of 40 and is two to three times more common in women than men. With RA, you have the usual stiffness and pain of OA but can also experience fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, dry eyes/mouth, and emerging lumps on hand joints. RA may affect the lungs, areas surrounding the heart, or blood vessels.

The more severe symptoms have even been known to cause anxiety and depression. Unlike OA, which often steadily worsens, a person with RA will experience intervals of mild symptoms followed by flare-ups in intensity.

Early, aggressive treatment is your best bet for controlling RA inflammation and pain. Many of the same medications taken for OA are also used for treating RA. Surgery is also a possible option if you have permanently damaged joints.

Helping a Loved One Manage Arthritis

You play an important role in helping a spouse, friend, or family member dealing with these two types of arthritis. Support them in keeping a positive, healthy attitude by helping them

  • Balance rest with appropriate physical activity.
  • Incorporate healthy eating into their daily diet.
  • Find ways to manage stress.

Even though there's no medical cure for arthritis, many are able to live fulfilling lives with the condition. Whether it's yourself or a loved one, maintaining a positive outlook and consistent preventive routines will go a long way.

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