What does the word arthritis actually mean? Let’s start with the Greek! The first part of the word – “arthro” – means joint. A joint is any part of the body where two or more bones come together. The second part of the word – “itis” – means inflammation. Inflammation is when part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot, and painful. So it seems simple enough: the word arthritis means joint inflammation.
Unfortunately, it is a bit more complicated than that. In reality, the word arthritis is used to refer to more than 100 different diseases and conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage, and other tissue. And while all types of arthritis result in joint inflammation, the various types of arthritis can otherwise be quite different.
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA), which affects nearly 27 million people in the United States. OA occurs when there is a breakdown of cartilage, a type of flexible connective tissue that provides cushioning in each of your joints. When cartilage is destroyed, bones in a joint can rub directly against each other, causing pain, stiffness, and limited mobility in the affected joint. While OA can occur at any time, especially with injury or overuse of a particular joint, the joint inflammation associated with OA most often develops gradually and worsens with age. In fact, according to the American College of Rheumatology, 70% of people over the age of 70 will show evidence of OA in their x-rays. This has created the stereotype that associated arthritis with old people. But while it’s true that OA is more likely to occur in older individuals, it isn’t the only type of arthritis! In fact, of the 50 million Americans living with arthritis, more than half are younger than 65 and 300,000 of them are children!
Most other types of arthritis are autoimmune diseases. Your immune system is designed to protect you from disease by attacking foreign cells, such as viruses or bacteria, but with autoimmune diseases your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue instead. The most common type of autoimmune arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In individuals with RA, their immune system attacks the synovium, which is a thin membrane between the bones in a joint. As the synovium becomes inflamed, fluid builds up in the joint causing pain and additional inflammation. Unlike OA, which generally occurs in a particular joint, RA is systemic, meaning that inflammation can occur in any joint in the body as well as other tissues and organs. RA is also chronic, meaning that it continues indefinitely and the symptoms may never go away. Other types of autoimmune arthritis include juvenile arthritis (JA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), ankylosing spondylitis (AS), fibromyalgia, gout, and lupus.
Both OA and RA (as well as other types of arthritis) can result in some similar symptoms. They both generally involve chronic stiffness and joint pain, and there are some medications that can be used to treat both conditions – such as non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids. Additionally, people with OA and RA both generally benefit from regular, low-impact exercise or physical therapy.
But there are some very important differences between OA and RA. In addition to joint pain, people living with RA and other types of autoimmune arthritis are also likely to have additional symptoms, such as weakness, fatigue, and the possibility of organ damage. And while NSAIDs and corticosteroids are sometimes utilized to help keep inflammation under control, people with RA generally require additional medications and treatments to keep their symptoms in check – such as disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) or biologic medications. And while OA is generally more of an issue for older adults, no one is too young to develop RA or other forms of autoimmune conditions. In fact, some children are diagnosed with arthritis at such a young age that they never remember a life without chronic pain.
It is important to remember that arthritis is not just a disease of the elderly. Educating others about different types of arthritis can help promote understanding and improve the lives of adults and children that must face arthritis every day.