In a stereotypical scene, elderly men sitting on their porch rockers are complaining about the aches in their bones and bragging about their ability to predict the weather from the pains in their knees. But arthritis — an incurable joint condition that causes swelling and inflammation around the areas where two or more bones meet to provide movement — doesn’t only affect cranky old men.
Approximately 58.5 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States suffer from this incurable and incredibly painful disease. That means 1 in 4 adults has been diagnosed with some form of arthritis, and 25 percent of them report acute joint pain that can constrain daily activities, limit the ability to work, and put a strain on personal relationships.
Arthritis is, in fact, the No. 1 cause of all work reported disabilities, and that wear and tear isn’t just felt in the joints. In the United States, the price tag for medical spending and lost wages due to arthritis is an estimated $303.5 billion per year.
The disease is all the more insidious because it is invisible. Without any outward, visible signs of sickness, people suffering from arthritis are often subjected to rude comments from the uninformed, such as: “You don’t look sick,” or “Just get up and move,” or “You don’t need that handicap space.” Not seeing it doesn’t make the disease any less distressful, so in addition to feeling the pain from their diseases, those coping with arthritis are also prone to fits of frustration, depression, and isolation.
What you can’t see most definitely can hurt you.
And while one person’s Aunt Marge might have one form of arthritis, someone else’s cousin Bert might have another, with an entirely different range of symptoms and treatment plans, causing even more misconceptions about the disease. Indeed, although they are often lumped together under the heading “arthritis,” more than 100 different types exist, all adversely affecting the joints and all incurable. The following are the most frequently occurring forms of arthritis:
Osteoarthritis — because it involves the degeneration of joint tissue over time, this is also known as the “wear and tear” disease and is the most frequently occurring form of adult arthritis. In the United States, 32.5 million adults are living with osteoarthritis, and while no one knows what precipitates the tissue breakdown, it results in severe joint damage, causing pain, stiffness, swelling, and a grating sensation.
Gout — recognized as the most painful form of arthritis, the 8.3 million people in the United States suffering from gout experience sudden and extreme attacks of shooting pain and swollen joints. It frequently starts in the big toe, and studies have shown that alcohol consumption and a poor diet exacerbate this condition. This is the one form of arthritis that is actually more prevalent in men than in women.
Fibromyalgia — approximately 4 million adults suffer from this disease, which can cause rigidity and pain all over the body and is sometimes brought on by traumatic life events. Patients report feeling widespread pain, depression, fatigue, headaches, and sleep disorders.
Lupus — this is an arthritic disease that causes one’s own immune system to attack healthy tissues. Symptoms may include extreme fatigue, rash, fever, and pain in the joints. Approximately 1.5 million Americans suffer from lupus, which took the life of award-winning author Flannery O’Connor at age 39.
Rheumatoid Arthritis — the 1.3 million people who suffer from RA experience swelling and pain in their joints, which is caused by their body’s immune system attacking its own tissues. In extreme cases, even internal organs may be irreparably damaged by this disease.
Psoriatic Arthritis — this is also an autoimmune disorder that can attack any part of the body with widely fluctuating severity of symptoms. It usually starts with changes in nail consistency and color, then red patches on the skin, and may progress quickly to mild or severe pain in the joints. About 1 million people in the United States suffer from this disorder.
Juvenile Arthritis — while arthritis is often thought of as an old person’s disease, approximately 300,000 children, age 16 and under, suffer from this ailment, which causes the tissues lining the inside of the joints to become inflamed. Symptoms include eye inflammation, rash, fever, and difficulty in establishing normal growth patterns. Sadly, like other types of arthritis, there is no cure, and children with juvenile arthritis grow up to be adults with some other form of arthritis.
Plenty of misconceptions exist about the disease. For example, cold weather does not cause arthritis. A drop in atmospheric pressure, like what happens before a rainstorm, may cause joints to swell, which increases the symptoms of arthritis, but it does not make the disease progress more rapidly. And while changes in diet may lead to a healthier lifestyle, which makes living with arthritis easier, drinking apple cider, becoming a vegetarian, or doing something called “bee sting therapy” will not cure arthritis.
Though our mothers may have told us it would, knuckle cracking will not cause arthritis. This was proven definitively by a Dr. Donald Unger, who purposely cracked the knuckles on his left hand for 60 years, while never cracking his right hand. Sixty years! Dr. Unger chronicled the progression of possible arthritis in both of his hands and discovered that the two had absolutely no difference.
So, while the noise of knuckle cracking might be annoying, it will not result in arthritis.
Other factors, however, can increase your risk of contracting arthritis. For both men and women, the chances of contracting arthritis increase with age, but females over the age of 50 are 3.5 times more likely to get it than men of a similar age. The exception to this is gout, which is more prevalent in men.
Specific inherited genes, called human leukocyte antigen class II genotypes, may increase the likelihood of developing arthritis, and once they have, the symptoms tend to be more severe. The reason for this is just as unknown as the proper pronunciation of the wayward gene.
And while a person’s gender, age, and genotype are uncontrollable, controlling certain factors can decrease the risk of contracting arthritis. Individuals who are overweight are more likely to contract osteoarthritis than those who are not, and smoking has been shown to increase the chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Just one more reason to Please. Stop. Smoking.
Injuries, particularly ones caused by repetitive movements, as well as some bacteria and viruses that get into the joints, have also been shown to increase the likelihood of getting arthritis.
If you suspect you are suffering from one of the many arthritic diseases, a trip to your doctor will help diagnosis the problem and get you quickly on a treatment regimen that may help alleviate your symptoms. Your physician will most likely check first for any tenderness and swelling around your joints, evaluate your range of motion, take a few X-rays, and rule out other non-arthritic conditions that have similar symptoms, such as Lyme disease and bursitis.
Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment options may include anti-inflammatory medication, cortisone shots, and a physical exercise program designed to improve range of motion. Surgeries, such as a hip replacement, are done only in extreme cases.
Even though it can be extremely debilitating, having arthritis does not mean that you will be unable to live a long, full, productive, and happy life. Many people, including Tiger Woods, Kristy McPherson, Patrick Stewart, Shaquille O’Neal, and Wayne Gretzky, have done amazing things, all while living with arthritis.
Education is key. Learning all you can about your particular form of arthritis will help you and your doctor find what treatment options work best for you. Informing your loved ones about your disease and its accompanying symptoms is also important. Since they can’t see it, your family and friends may not fully understand what you as the patient are experiencing.
Many credible online support groups and organizations are available — such as the cutely named CreakyJoints organization — that can offer insights and provide tips on how to improve your life while living with arthritis. Suggestions like using heat in the morning but ice in the evening, improving your diet, and making home modifications, such as grab bars for the bathtub, can all be found on websites.
And, while the last thing you might feel like doing is moving, physical activity is the No. 1 suggested remedy for the symptoms of arthritis. Care should be taken to avoid stress on the afflicted joints, but you can “find your strength” by pinpointing using other parts of your body to compensate for the loss of movement or pain caused by your condition. Moving will not only improve your symptoms but will also help to ease the depression that often accompanies arthritis.
It’s a chronic condition, but it doesn’t define you, so be patient with yourself and remember that a bad day with arthritis does not mean that every day will be bad. The symptoms can and do ebb and flow from day to day.
So, let’s all get off the front porch rocker, leave the weather reports to the weather announcers, and start educating the world about how we can help those who suffer live their best life, even in the face — or the toes, or the knees, or the hands — of arthritis.