It is the leading cause of disability in America and causes more limitations in activity than diabetes, heart disease or cancer.
So what is this condition that affects some 45 million people in the United States?
It’s arthritis — an oftentimes debilitating condition that can plague people of all ages, genders and ethnicities.
Arthritis is simply an inflammation of a joint and occurs when your immune system attacks the lining around your joints, causing the joints to swell. Researchers figure that genes play a factor, though no one is certain what exactly causes arthritis.
Dr. Samy Metyas is an assistant clinical professor of rheumatology at the University of Southern California. He noted that arthritis is more than achy joints. Some types, if left untreated, can do a load of damage to your body.
"(Arthritis) can also affect your internal organs," Metyas said. "It’s not only a joint disease. It can be more than that."
In its early stages, arthritis usually starts in the hands, wrists and ankles before making its way to the knees, elbows, shoulders and hips.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are more than 100 different types of arthritis. About 20 percent of American adults have been diagnosed by doctors as having arthritis. Currently, that amounts to roughly 45 million people. That number is expected to shoot up to more than 67 million by 2030, Metyas said. And it’s not even an "old people" disease, as many may picture it. The Arthritis Foundation notes that only about one-third of the people who have been diagnosed as having arthritis are at least 65 years old. That means the majority of arthritis cases are occurring in younger and middle-aged adults.
While causes are unknown, there are risk factors that put you at a greater likelihood for developing arthritis. For example, being female and older both increase your risk. Obesity, infected or injured joints, and constant knee-bending all up your likelihood.
Removing stress, relaxing more and modifying your diet to include less fatty and healthier foods are all ways to help. Also, overweight and obese people can lose weight to lighten the load on their joints and reduce their likelihood of developing arthritis.
Genetics also play a key role.
Metyas said that arthritis is very much a genetic disease. It does have a tendency to skip generations. However, it can be a mixed bag even within a certain generation, meaning a brother could have arthritis while the sister might not.
That’s because there are certain triggers that can set on or set off the gene. For example, Metyas said a certain bacteria, infection or stress can trigger the gene.
How do you know if you have arthritis? Paying attention to your body is the first clue. Symptoms include pain, swelling, redness and reduced movement of a joint. Morning stiffness and warmth of a joint are also common.
Also, being female is a contributor. Women are hit harder than men — about 28 percent of adult women have arthritis while only about 18 percent of men do.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar and you haven’t been diagnosed, a trip to the doctor is in order. Early diagnosis can cut back on the potential damage from arthritis and joint pain. If you can begin to treat the arthritis when the inflammation is low, the daily pain you have to deal with would be less than if you waited to see your doctor.
Prevention — while not foolproof — does exist. Maintaining a healthy body weight creates less strain on your bones and joints. Also avoiding overuse scenarios is key to avoiding joint pain that could lead to arthritis. Overuse scenarios are instances when you repeatedly perform the same physical motion over and over, every day. For example, if you work on an assembly line and your job involves mainly lifting and squatting, you face a much greater risk of arthritis.
Arthritis may exist in the smallest of joints in the body, yet the cost is anything but small. According to a study published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, arthritis causes roughly 10,000 deaths every year. About 19 million people face physical limitations because of arthritis and the condition puts about 800,000 people into the hospital each year, Metyas said. About 40 percent of people with arthritis face work limitations.
There’s another cost, though not measured by people. Rather, it’s measured in dollars — about $128 billion. That’s what lost wages, treatment and other costs amount to every year, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is a joint disease that results in broken down cartilage in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is another common type, which is signified by pain, redness, stiffness and swelling of the joints. Lupus, fibromyalgia and gout are three other very common forms of arthritis.
With so many people affected, treatment of arthritis is a hot issue. While treatment is largely dependent on the type of arthritis and the cause, there are general methods used in treatment. While there is no cure, there is no shortage of treatments available. One of the most commonly used methods is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil or Aleve. Steroids, TNF-alpha inhibitors, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and immunosuppressants are also commonly used. Outside of medications, therapy is an effective treatment. The type of therapy varies greatly depending on the area affected. Surgery, such as joint replacement or joint fusion can be used if medications and therapy don’t suffice. Exercising, reducing stress and using cold and heat on affected joints are also ways to cope.
Coping may help people, at least temporarily. The future of arthritis isn’t focused on coping and treatment. Rather, it’s about finding a cure for a disease that is currently incurable.
"In the next 20 years we’re going to be concentrating more on genetic engineering and DNA testing to find the right medications for people by using a blood test," Metyas said. "We hope to find a cure for some kinds of arthritis."