As the United States’ population ages, it’s more and more common for someone we know to be diagnosed with arthritis. But many of us don’t know a whole lot about this debilitating disease or how to support a loved one with their prognosis. What are the basic facts about arthritis and what can we do to help?
“Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints. A joint is the area where 2 bones meet. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis.” The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the most usual form, typically comes as we age and affects the fingers, knees, and hips, but can also result from an injury to a joint.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks the joints and bones (usually in the hands and feet). Your internal organs and other systems may also be affected.
There are certain risk factors you may have for arthritis that you have no control over. For instance, your risk increases as you get older, if you are a woman, and if you have certain genes that increase your risk for specific types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis. Other risk factors are “modifiable” because you can change them and potentially decrease your risk. These include being overweight or obese, having joint injuries, infections, and working in occupations that require a lot of knee bending and squatting.
Arthritis is caused when the cartilage of a joint is broken down. Cartilage protects the joint and absorbs shock during movement, but when cartilage wears down the bones rub together causing joint pain, swelling, stiffness (especially in the morning), and redness or warmth.
Treatment goals are to “control pain, minimize joint damage, and improve or maintain function and quality of life. In inflammatory types of arthritis, it is also important to control inflammation.” Lifestyle changes, such as incorporating an exercise program, managing your weight, quitting smoking, and adding stress-reduction activities, into your daily life are the preferred treatments.
OTC pain relief
Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or other supplements in addition to lifestyle changes. Tylenol is usually the first pain reliever tried, but needs to be taken as directed or it can cause liver damage. OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – like Aleve, Advil, or Motrin – can relieve pain and inflammation, but may have serious side effects if taken in high doses long-term. Capsaicin is an OTC topical cream that may help with pain, but takes about one to two weeks to see an effect.
Some OTC natural supplements claim to help with arthritis pain. A combination product of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, both naturally made in the body and important for cartilage, may be beneficial in reducing pain. However, the product doesn’t appear to promote new cartilage growth or prevent the arthritis from worsening. That’s why some doctors may recommend a three-month trial period of the supplement. Another supplement, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a synthetic version of a natural chemical and has not been thoroughly proven to help.
Prescription medications are generally prescribed for severe pain or inflammation. They can include oral or injected steroids, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologics. It’s important to take all of your medications as directed and to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your healthcare team.