What You Should Know About Arthritis


What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is an illness that can cause pain and swelling in your joints, where 2 bones meet. Your knee is a joint, for example. Arthritis is caused by inflammation, or swelling, which may cause pain or redness. More than 40 million Americans have arthritis. There are many different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It affects over 21 million adults in the United States. This is the type of arthritis that usually comes with age. It also may follow an injury to a joint. Young people may hurt their knee playing sports. Then, many years later they may get arthritis in the knee joint. Osteoarthritis usually affects the neck, fingers, lower back, hips, and knees. Rheumatoid arthritis is inflammation in a joint that occurs because the body?s own defense system is not working right. It affects more than 2 million people in the United States. This form of arthritis can occur in children. It mainly affects the hands and feet on both sides of the body. It also can impact the organs of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women than in men.

Do You Have Arthritis?

Pain is the way your body tells you that something is wrong. Most kinds of arthritis cause pain in the joints. You may have trouble moving around. Some kinds of arthritis can affect different parts of your body. So, along with the arthritis, you may have a fever or a rash.

Only a doctor can tell if you have arthritis. Many other illnesses may have some of the same symptoms as arthritis. It is important to let your doctor know about pain, redness, swelling, or stiffness in your joints. You can help your doctor by keeping a written list like this:

  • Which joints hurt
  • What time of day the pain starts
  • How long the pain lasts
  • What makes the pain better or worse

You should tell your doctor if someone else in your family has arthritis. Also tell your doctor and your pharmacist if you take herbs or medicines that you can buy without a prescription. Your doctor will examine you and may take x-ray pictures of your bones and joints. You also may have to give a little blood for tests that will help the doctor decide whether you have arthritis and what kind you have.

What Will Help Arthritis?

You can feel better! Arthritis can damage your joints, but there are actions to take to keep the damage from getting worse and to make you feel better.

Rest and Exercise

People with arthritis need both rest and exercise. It is important to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep at night. Too much rest, however, may cause joints to become stiff. Exercise, when done correctly, helps people with arthritis in many ways. It helps you to maintain a healthy weight and to decrease the stress on your joints. It also helps to improve your mood and to let you sleep. Stretching will increase flexibility. Low-impact aerobic exercise (for example, walking, bicycle riding, or swimming) will improve strength. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help plan an exercise program that is right for you. You should follow these steps:

  • Discuss your exercise plans with your doctor
  • Begin with a mild warm-up stretching exercise, and end with a similar cool-down time
  • Start slowly with small amounts of exercise
  • Make sure that your shoes fit, have arch support, and have a firm sole to protect joints in your back, hips, knees, ankles, and feet
  • Ease off if your joints become painful, red, or swollen, and see your doctor

Hot and Cold Therapy

Both heat and cold can reduce the pain and inflammation of arthritis. Heat increases the blood flow and flexibility. You can apply warm towels or a take a warm bath. Use caution to avoid burning yourself. Cold numbs the nerves around the joint to decrease pain, as well as decreasing swelling. You can apply ice wrapped in a towel, soak in cold water, or use over-the-counter sprays and ointments that cool the skin and joints. Use heat or cold therapy for only 15 minutes at a time.

Assistive Devices

Assistive devices such as splints and braces can support weakened joints. A splint or brace should be used only when recommended by a doctor. A professional should fit it for you. The incorrect use of a splint or a brace can cause stiffness, pain, and permanent joint damage. Canes, walkers, and bathroom grab bars can be helpful. Kitchen tools with large handles may help people who have arthritis in their hands. Raising the height of the toilet seat may be helpful for people with arthritis in their legs.


Medications can be used for quick relief of pain and long-term prevention of joint damage. There are several types of medications for arthritis. Ask about the best way to take the medicine the doctor prescribes. For example, you may need to take some medications with food to make sure that they do not upset your stomach. You also should know how often to take the medication. Some medications should be taken every day?even if you do not have pain?to control the arthritis. Some drugs should not be taken together with other drugs. With some drugs, you may need to have regular blood tests. Keep a list of all your medications for your doctor and pharmacist to review.

Where Can You Find More Information?

Organizations can offer free information about arthritis, about studies, and about local support groups. Here are 2 national organizations:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (NIAMS)

National Institutes of Health

1 AMS Circle

Bethesda, MD 20892-3675


Telephone: 877-226-4267

Arthritis Foundation

1330 West Peachtree Street

Atlanta, GA 30309


Telephone: 800-283-7800

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