Arthritis refers to pain in any of the body’s joints, where bones meet. It’s a broad term, covering more than 100 different conditions including gout, scleroderma, and ankylosing spondylitis. The most common types of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, and osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint ailment associated with aging.
Joints are connected and protected by cartilage, but the cartilage in your body gradually wears away. When this happens, the bones rubbing together causes pain, swelling, and stiffness referred to as osteoarthritis. Patients with osteoarthritis often experience muscle weakness or stiffness, or develop bone spurs, at the site of the condition.
Osteoarthritis is common in older people. It isn’t inevitable—it’s more common in women over 55 than in men over 55, though in younger patients it’s equally common in both—but most people have at least some symptoms of osteoarthritis by age 70. Symptoms usually start in middle age.
The condition runs in families. People who are overweight are at greater risk for osteoarthritis in the joints in the legs. Other risk factors include fractures and joint injuries; jobs or hobbies that involve kneeling or squatting for more than an hour a day or lifting, walking, or climbing stairs; and playing sports that involve joint impact, twisting, or throwing.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning the patient’s immune system is attacking healthy tissue in the belief that it is an illness. It can lead to osteoarthritis, but it can also be painful itself.
Arthritis symptoms include pain and stiffness in the joints. In osteoarthritis this can worsen over time. Exercise or putting pressure or weight on the affected joint often makes the pain worse.
The stiffness is typically worse in the morning. It lasts longer with rheumatoid arthritis than with osteoarthritis but generally fades after about an hour.
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to become deformed. Often there is a reduced range of motion as the condition progresses, which is why it’s important to get treatment. Osteoarthritis is sometimes asymptomatic at first, even though it shows up on x-ray; it’s important to get checked as you get older so you can be treated sooner rather than later.