As a Physical Therapist Assistant, one of the most common questions/concerns that I hear from patients is, “What can I do about arthritis?” In order to effectively answer that question, it is important to understand what arthritis is, the different types, and what causes it, including risk factors.
Arthritis gets its name from the Greek work Arthron, meaning joint, and suffix –itis, meaning inflammation of. Appropriately then, arthritis is an inflammation of one or more joints in the body. It can present with symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, redness, and loss of motion in the joint or joints affected. The symptoms can present as mild, or can become so severe it prevents normal completion of activities of daily living. The cause of arthritis varies based on the type of arthritis present. Although there are many different types of arthritis, we will focus on the two most common types: Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. In the simplest sense, osteoarthritis is wear and tear to joint cartilage. Cartilage is found in many areas of the body. In joints specifically, it covers the end of bones, forming a “cushion” that allows for a near frictionless motion in the joint. As the cartilage is worn down, the result is a grinding of bone, which then causes the above symptoms of discomfort. Typically, the wear and tear is gradual and occurs over multiple years, but an injury or infection can increase the progression of the damage.
Rheumatoid Arthritis differs from Osteoarthritis as the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the joint capsule. The disease progression can eventually destroy cartilage and the joint. Most commonly, the hands, ankles, and knees are affected, and both sides of the body. At this point, the exact cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis is unknown.
(Although Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis are the most common types of arthritis, there are several more including: Psoriatic Arthritis, Reactive Arthritis, Septic Arthritis, Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and Gout)
Risk factors that increase the risk for developing arthritis include the following: increasing age; Gender: women are at higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis, while men are at higher risk of gout; previous joint injury; obesity; and family history: some types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis may have a genetic link.
So that brings us back to our first question, “What can we do about arthritis?” The good news is that while arthritis is noncurable, and in some cases unavoidable, it is extremely treatable. One treatment option is to manage the symptoms medically, utilizing painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and anti-rheumatics. Another option is physical therapy. Therapy works to increase range of motion and improve strength as an effective way of reducing the symptoms of arthritis. Physical therapy is typically the least invasive option. A third option is surgical intervention. Usually reserved for more severe cases, a surgery such as a joint repair or replacement can also help to reduce the effects of arthritis.