According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 50 million Americans are living with arthritis. It is the most common disease in people over the age of 65, and approximately half of the population of that age has some form of the disease. It affects all race and ethnic groups, and is the most common cause of disability in the U.S.
Arthritis is not a single disease, but is a group of over 100 different conditions, all of which can cause pain, swelling and an interference with normal movement. Some types of arthritis are thought to be hereditary; some result from overuse or injury of a joint, or from years of “wear and tear”; some types are caused by infection and still others are caused by a malfunction of the immune system. Arthritis may affect only one joint, or many joints at the same time. The joints most commonly affected are the weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees, and also the smaller joints of the hands and neck.
Although there is no cure for most types of arthritis, the pain and inflammation can be reduced by a variety of medical treatments. Appropriate treatment can often result in great improvement to a person’s condition, as well as preventing further damage. Treatment depends on the type and degree of the condition.
Analgesic and anti-inflammatory medications relieve pain and reduce inflammation, or both. Aspirin or ibuprofen are often prescribed. Alternative pain relievers such as corticosteroids, acetaminophen and topical ointments or rubs also may be prescribed, depending on the type and severity of a patient’s arthritis.
Exercise and rest are both important. People with arthritis tire more easily; the physician may also order rest of a painful joint. But it is just as important to remain active. Exercise helps strengthen the muscles surrounding affected joints, protecting them from further damage. It also increases blood flow and lubrication of joints, and helps keep the joint strong and mobile, preventing loss of function. Exercise also helps patients maintain a healthy weight; being overweight puts extra stress on joints. A physician-prescribed exercise program will usually include range-of-motion, strengthening and aerobic exercises.
Physical therapy benefits many arthritis patients and can include heat or cold treatments, whirlpool and massage, splinting to immobilize and rest a joint, and training in performing exercises to loosen and build up joints and surrounding muscles.
Occupational therapists help patients achieve the greatest level of independence possible by providing instruction in alternative ways of performing the activities of daily living and self-care. They can also evaluate a patient’s home environment to suggest any necessary adaptations, such as grab bars or a raised toilet seat.
Adaptive devices can make living with arthritis easier. Occupational therapists can instruct arthritis patients in the use of mobility aids that lessen the stress on joints, such as canes and walkers. For arthritis in the shoulder or hand, long-handled spoons, zipper pulls, built-up toothbrush handles and page turners make the activities of daily living easier.
Surgery may be recommended if arthritis is causing severe pain and lost joint function. Some surgical procedures repair or remove damaged tissue. Joint replacement is becoming more and more common, and most patients experience excellent results from an artificial hip or knee.