February 09, 2021
Many people think of arthritis as an “old folks” disease, complete with creaking joints, rocking chairs and a cane. Although arthritis does disproportionately affect people who are 65 years of age and older, this is only a part of the total arthritis picture, as arthritis can, and does, afflict people of all ages, genders and races.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States and the most common cause of disability in older adults worldwide. Conservative estimates put the number of adults who suffer from arthritis in the United States at 54 million and the number of children at 300,000. Of course the global burden from arthritis is much higher, with the World Health Organization estimating that by 2050, some 130 million people will suffer from osteoarthritis globally and of these, 40 million will be severely disabled.
You can get a clue as to what this term means by looking at its roots. The word “arthritis” is derived from a couple of Greek words: arthro- meaning “joint,” and itis- meaning “inflammation.” So arthritis means inflammation of the joints of the body. If a body part is inflamed, that usually involves swelling, stiffness, pain and tenderness, which can progress over time or stay relatively the same.
Sometimes this damage is visible to the naked eye, such as “knobby” knees or even deformed joints, but many times the joint damage and destruction is only visible with an x-ray. These symptoms typically worsen with age which is likely why it is commonly assumed to be an disease of the elderly. But arthritis is a general term and is not a single disease.
There are over 100 types of arthritis, including fibromyalgia, gout, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome and more, but there are two main types, osteoarthritis, which is the most common form, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and is often referred to as the “wear and tear” arthritis. As we age, our joints begin to break down as we lose collagen in the tendons, ligaments and cushioning cartilage between the bones. When this protective cushion, wears down, joints become stiff, hard to move and painful.
Although osteoarthritis can occur at any age, it most commonly affects people aged 50 plus, and also affects more women than men. Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint but is most often seen in the hands, knees, lower back, hips and neck. Some people, in spite of their advanced ages, never develop osteoarthritis, so researchers have now come to see osteoarthritis as much more than “wear and tear” but an actual joint disease.
Risk factors for developing arthritis include: increasing age, joint injury, overuse, being overweight, weak muscles surrounding the joint, having a close family members who have the disease, and female sex.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune system disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining (synovium) of the joints, causing swelling, redness, tenderness and pain. The synovium gets thickened, which makes the joint hard to move. Scientists think that people who have RA most likely have a gene that gets triggered by some environmental factor, such as a virus or bacteria, or even an emotional or physical stressor.
RA is the most common type of arthritis afflicting children age 16 or younger and was formerly known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA.) The name was changed to juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) after medical researchers realized that JRA was not simply a child’s version of the adult disease. The term “juvenile arthritis” is now used to encompass all the various types of arthritis that affects teens and children, including rheumatoid.
The outlook for arthritis is not all dim however.
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