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Arthritis is a condition characterised by inflammation of the joints.

An elderly person holding an apple

However, while joint pain may be a common feature, there are actually many different types of arthritis and, as such, arthritis causes can vary. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that occurs with injury or age as the cartilage of the joints breaks down.

Other types include rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder whereby the body’s immune system attacks healthy joint tissue, and gout – a type of arthritis caused by elevated levels of uric acid in the body, which most commonly affects the big toe.

What are its symptoms?

Arthritis symptoms are the same for all arthritis types, despite their different causes.

The dominant symptom is joint pain, but depending on the type of arthritis, it can be accompanied by any of the following:

  • Swelling around the joint
  • Redness and warmth
  • Stiffness that gets worse over time
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Bony enlargements around smaller joints, such as the fingers
  • Sometimes the affected joint may make a crackling sound when moved
  • Aches and weakness in associated muscles.

Osteoarthritis occurs mostly in the hands, feet, spine, knees and hips, with your risk of developing the disease increasing as you age.

How is it diagnosed?

In order to reach an arthritis diagnosis, a doctor will conduct a comprehensive health history, then conduct a physical examination of the affected joints, looking for signs of inflammation, as well as warmth or redness.

From here, various diagnostic tests can ascertain which type of arthritis you have. A blood test can be used to detect signs of rheumatoid arthritis or gout, while X-rays can reveal cartilage loss and damage to the bones, making it a useful tool for tracking the progression of the disease. Other types of imaging tests, such as ultrasound, may be used to give your doctor a better idea of the health of your joints.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, but there are steps you can take to manage the disease. Arthritis treatment focuses on pain relief and giving the patient improved joint function. To this end, a combination of medications to relieve the pain and physical therapy to improve range of motion are the mainstays of treatment.

Drugs that act on the immune system to prevent it from attacking the joints are used in cases of rheumatoid arthritis. In severe cases, surgery, such as joint replacement with an artificial joint or joint fusion to lock joints, may be necessary.

Can it be prevented?

Although osteoarthritis is accepted as an inevitable part of the ageing process, you can keep your joints healthy for longer. The first step is maintaining a healthy weight, as any excess kilograms put additional strain on the joints and may cause them to wear out faster. Regular exercise will not only assist in keeping your weight in check, but also helps to strengthen the muscles around joints to give them extra support and will help your joints stay limber. But if you do hurt yourself working out, take it easy – proper management of injuries is essential for joint health.

In the acute phase of any arthritis, rest is very important to allow the pain and inflammation to settle and thus protect the joint.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015