Arthritis is a serious chronic degenerative joint disease that causes joint inflammation. This inflammatory arthritis often leads to joint pain (arthralgia) and decreased mobility. Patients may have difficulty lifting heavy items, opening jars, walking long distances, or performing other tasks that require strength and flexibility in the joint area. Arthritis may affect only one joint, or it may affect many joints in the body. While you can be diagnosed at any age, a person’s likelihood of developing it increases as they grow older — In fact, 50 percent of adults over 65 have arthritis.
There are over 100 types of arthritis. However, most cases of arthritis are caused by one of the two most common forms of arthritis: osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Some other types include psoriatic arthritis, polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis, post-traumatic arthritis, inflammatory arthritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, knee osteoarthritis, septic arthritis, juvenile arthritis, degenerative joint disease, idiopathic arthritis, osteoarthritis rheumatoid arthritis, among others.
- Osteoarthritis: This type of arthritis accounts for 60% of arthritis cases in the US, occurs when cartilage in the joints begins to break down. This may be part of the normal aging process or may occur after an injury to the joint. Overuse of a joint or repetitive movement may also lead to osteoarthritis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the connective tissue lining the joint, causing inflammation. Other symptoms may include fever, fatigue, or anemia.
Who develops arthritis
Arthritis is a common health condition that affects approximately 50 million Americans. Nearly 1 in 4 American adults are affected by arthritis and it is the most common causes of disability in the US.
Several different factors may affect your chances of developing arthritis. Risk factors may include:
- Genetic history: If you have family members who suffer from arthritis, you may be more likely to develop arthritis yourself.
- Age: Your chances of developing arthritis increase as you age.
- Sex: Certain types of arthritis are more common among men, while other types are more common among women. In general, women are more likely to receive a diagnosis of arthritis during their lifetime.
- Medical history: Some forms of arthritis develop after joint damage or an infection. Patients who are overweight or obese are also more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis during their lifetime.
While arthritis cannot be cured, treatment can help ease symptoms. Arthritis treatment may take many forms.
Arthritis pain medications may ease discomfort, while anti-inflammatory medication or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may reduce joint swelling. Topical medications may also provide relief from symptoms. Patients who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis may be prescribed immunosuppressants, which prevent the patient’s immune system from attacking joint tissue.
Physical therapy can help maintain joint health in patients who suffer from arthritis. Regular physical therapy may strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint and relieve joint stiffness. In time, physical therapy may improve a patient’s range of motion. Aquatic therapy — a form of therapy in which patients receive therapeutic treatments in water — may also ease arthritis symptoms.
Surgery may sometimes be required to repair severely damaged joint tissue. In certain cases, surgery may be performed in order to replace a damaged joint with an artificial one.
Living with arthritis
If you have recently been diagnosed with arthritis, you may be wondering what the future holds. You may be concerned that your condition will worsen, or you may want to know if it is possible for your arthritis to improve in time. You may also be wondering how arthritis will affect your life in the years to come.
In cases of arthritis, the prognosis varies from patient to patient. Some people with arthritis are able to continue most parts of their daily routine, though they may have to stop participating in certain physical activities like tennis or jogging. Other patients find that their arthritis severely limits their mobility on a day-to-day basis.
Patients with arthritis may need a wide range of care. Some patients may be able to perform all personal-care tasks and may only need help with particularly strenuous activities.
However, patients who experience severe symptoms may need assistance with activities of daily living. In some cases, patients may need in-home support.
Activities arthritis patients may need help with can include:
- Bathing (especially getting into or out of a bathtub or shower)
- Getting dressed
- Using the toilet
- Preparing meals/eating
- Getting into or out of a wheelchair
Certain forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis can also affect different parts of the body. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis may experience damage to their eyes, heart, lungs, or skin. Individuals who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis may need additional forms of medical care depending on the severity of their symptoms and which parts of the body are affected. If you or a loved one have rheumatoid arthritis, speak with a doctor to find out more about the symptoms you may experience.
In addition to arthritis symptoms, patients may experience side effects from medical treatment. Side effects vary based on individual treatments but may include rashes,
Arthritis and employment
Some individuals with arthritis may find that they have difficulty performing their job duties or working full-time. Arthritis patients may need to make adjustments to their work habits or duties in order to perform their job more comfortably.
In some cases, simple ergonomic adjustments—like moving to another desk or using a different chair—may resolve the problem. In other cases, more serious changes may be required. Patients who are having difficulty performing their job duties may need to speak to their employer about possible accommodations. If critical job tasks cannot be modified or if an employer cannot offer the appropriate assistance, a patient with arthritis may need to change jobs or stop working altogether.
Arthritis patients may have difficulty performing daily tasks. While some patients with arthritis are able to maintain their normal routine, others struggle to do the things they once did. Pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in the joints may prevent arthritis sufferers from working, exercising, and keeping up with household tasks. In some cases, patients may have difficulty performing basic tasks like preparing a meal or getting dressed. People with arthritis may tire more easily and struggle with fatigue.
The psychological effects of arthritis can also be significant. Patients who find themselves unable to work outside the home or participate in group activities may become isolated. When social isolation or limited mobility are combined with the effects of chronic arthritis pain, an arthritis patient may feel lonely, discouraged, or unhappy with their lives. In fact, while many seniors struggle with depression and other mood disorders, chronic pain increases the risk of depression, particularly if their arthritis symptoms are not well-controlled. More on
Planning for the future
It can be difficult for arthritis patients to know how their arthritis may progress in the years to come. Some arthritis patients find that their symptoms stay the same for many years. Other patients feel better or worse with certain treatments. If you have questions about your prognosis, ask your doctor how they expect your symptoms to progress in the years ahead.
Arthritis may progress or worsen over the years. A patient who was able to care for themselves years ago may find that their symptoms become more severe in time. Proper medical treatment may help ease symptoms, but in some cases, the condition progresses even with treatment.
Arthritis symptoms may also be worsened by other, unrelated health conditions. For example, a patient with arthritis who undergoes surgery for another health issue may find that they have additional difficulties taking care of themselves as they recover from surgery. Any illness or injury that causes joint inflammation in the body may aggravate arthritis symptoms.
In some cases, family members may be able to provide in-home care and support. In other cases, it may become necessary to hire professional home health care services to assist the patient on a daily basis. Assisted living facilities or nursing homes may also be an option for some patients who are no longer able to care for themselves or who struggle to live on their own.
Impact on loved ones
The psychological stress caused by arthritis symptoms can also have an effect on the patient’s relationships with their friends and families.
Some arthritis patients may experience such severe symptoms that they require a caretaker. If a patient needs frequent help or support in performing their daily activities, this can sometimes be overwhelming or stressful for their loved ones. If daily care is needed, the logistical and financial strain of arranging for such care may be a source of added source of stress for families.
Individuals who suffer from arthritis should understand that it is normal to feel frustrated or discouraged when they are dealing with chronic pain. Family members may also feel worried or stressed, particularly in situations where the patient is unable to work or needs regular care.
Some patients may find therapy or counseling beneficial. A qualified therapist can help arthritis patients and their families work through feelings of disappointment, sadness, or uncertainty. Arthritis patients who are struggling with feelings of depression or anxiety may wish to ask their doctor for recommendations for mental health services. Patients and family members may find additional help through support groups for patients with arthritis. The Arthritis Support Network offers support group meetings in many areas of the country. The organization’s website includes information on meeting dates and locations.
Arthritis organizations and resources
The Arthritis Foundation — This nonprofit organization provides comprehensive information for arthritis patients and their loved ones. Their website offers resources for patients seeking more information about their treatment options, plus recommendations for accessing arthritis health care. They also offer help and advice for patients who are struggling to navigate their arthritis-related health insurance claims. The organization also sponsors special events to raise awareness and funding for arthritis research.
The Arthritis National Research Foundation — This nonprofit organization provides funding for arthritis research, including research for new arthritis treatments. Their website contains information on the many different forms of arthritis, along with information on recent developments in arthritis research. Their blog provides additional updates on the latest arthritis research and helpful information for patients living with arthritis.
The American College of Rheumatology — This nonprofit organization is designed for medical professionals and researchers who specialize in the study of rheumatology. While the organization focuses on providing resources for physicians and researchers, their website also provides a library of medical information that may be helpful for patients with arthritis. The information available on the organization’s website includes a glossary of key medical terms, a guide to medications, and a patient/caregiver information page.
The Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network — This website is designed to offer help for patients who have recently been diagnosed with arthritis and who are seeking more information about their diagnosis. The organization offers information on treatment options, home remedies, and lifestyle changes that can help ease arthritis symptoms. The site also provides links to support groups and online communities for people living with arthritis.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases — This organization is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the premier medical research agency in the United States. The organization conducts biomedical research to determine the causes of arthritis, methods of prevention, and new treatment options for patients with arthritis. Their website contains comprehensive information on a variety of bone, muscle, and tissue disorders. The site also offers information about clinical trials and recent breakthroughs in arthritis research.
Paying for arthritis care
Many arthritis patients and their family members eventually become concerned about the costs of medical care, particularly in the event that the patient needs in-home care. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help arthritis patients and their loved ones.
Medical leave or disability
Individuals with arthritis who are unable to work because of their condition may be eligible for various disability benefits. If a patient is unable to perform their job for a short period of time, they may qualify for a medical leave of absence or short-term disability. Speak to your employer or your state’s disability office to determine whether you qualify for this type of assistance and how to apply.
Students who suffer from arthritis may also qualify for an academic leave of absence or additional academic support, including in-class accommodations or services. Most colleges and universities have a department that assists disabled students and connects them with the appropriate resources. To find out more about what help your school can provide, contact your school’s department for disabled students or your school counselor.
There's also the option of Social Security Disability if your arthritis is so bad you're permanently unable to work. For more information on applying for this type of disability, review the information provided by the Social Security Administration, including the Disability Benefits pamphlet. In order to qualify for disability benefits, your doctor will need to certify that you are unable to work due to arthritis. If you intend to file for disability benefits, it is a good idea to speak with your doctor or medical team in advance to discuss your plans.
Individuals with arthritis should also be aware of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Public places—including restaurants, businesses, and medical facilities—are required to provide certain accommodations to ensure that individuals with disabilities are able to access their facilities. These accommodations may include wheelchair ramps, elevators, or special seating. More information on these regulations can be found on the U.S. Department of Justice website. This website also offers resources for registering a complaint against facilities that do not offer the appropriate accommodations.
Assistance with health insurance or medical expenses
Patients who are not insured through their job or family may be able to find health insurance through state or federal programs. These programs may offer discounted health care premiums or other financial assistance.
Individuals who have a medical disability may be able to obtain health care coverage through Medicare. Patients who do not qualify for Medicare may still qualify for low-cost or no-cost health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. For more information, visit HealthCare.gov to view information for different health insurance plans in your state.
Patients who need help paying for prescriptions, co-pays, or other medical costs may find help through state or federal assistance programs. If you qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, your plan may offer additional support for patients who are still struggling to meet health care costs. Contact your health insurance provider to determine what services are available to you.
If you have private insurance but need additional help meeting your out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs, some pharmaceutical companies offer special assistance programs. Contact your pharmacy or view Arthritis.org’s webpage on paying for arthritis treatment for information on how to apply for these programs.
If you need surgery and you are having difficulty paying for your hospital bills, your hospital may be able to offer you an interest-free payment plan or other financial help. Contact your hospital billing department for more information on what financial assistance programs are available to you.
Arranging the appropriate level of care
If your loved one has been diagnosed with arthritis and needs regular care, developing a care plan can seem confusing or overwhelming at first. You may be unsure what options are available to you or which options will provide your loved one with the best possible care.
The first step is to discuss the situation with the patient’s doctor or medical team to determine what level of care is needed and for how long the care will be necessary. Let the doctor know what kind of care the patient and their family are currently able to access and ask the doctor if more care will be needed in the near future. Ask if the patient needs skilled care — for example, a trained nurse or health aid — or if untrained family members will be able to provide the appropriate care.
Once you understand the patient’s medical needs, you can begin to develop a long-term care strategy.
To plan your care strategy, you will need to consider the following factors:
- Cost: If the patient’s insurance does not cover all medical costs, it will be necessary to consider how much the patient and their family can afford to pay out-of-pocket and which care options best fit into their budget.
- Level of care already available: If the patient does not need continuous care from a trained medical professional, family members and friends may be able to provide regular assistance depending on their availability.
- Patient’s wishes: It is important for the patient to discuss their care strategy with their loved ones. While other factors may play a deciding role, it is still important for families to discuss what care is available and what arrangements the patients would prefer.
Short-term care options
If the patient needs regular care for a short period of time — for example, while they are recovering from a surgery — it may be necessary to arrange for short-term in-home care or short-term care at an inpatient facility. Depending on the patient’s medical insurance, the cost of this care may or may not be covered by insurance. Contact the patient’s insurance company to find out what kind of coverage the patient’s insurance plan offers.
If the patient has recently undergone surgery or another significant medical procedure, the hospital or county medical service may be able to arrange for a visiting nurse to check on the patient as they recover. Reach out to your local hospital or county offices to ask if these services are available.
Long-term care options
In time, an arthritis patient may require long-term care. In such cases, the patient and their family may need to work with their insurance company and/or a private home health care company in their area to arrange for the appropriate level of care. Before hiring a private company, it is important to speak with the patient’s insurance provider to determine whether or not they will cover these services.
In some cases, the patient may be able to remain in the home if certain changes are made. Furniture or appliances may need to be altered or replaced. The patient may also need to move downstairs or install certain mobility devices to help them move around more comfortably. Your doctor or home health care organization will be able to provide guidance on what household changes may be helpful for the arthritis patient.
Choosing a doctor
Most patients are likely to be diagnosed with arthritis by their primary care physician. Patients with milder forms of arthritis may find that their primary care doctor is able to continue to treat their arthritis in the future. But many patients, particularly those who suffer from severe arthritis symptoms, will eventually need to a see a specialist.
A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in rheumatic conditions, including joint disorders and autoimmune diseases. This type of specialist can help a patient with arthritis determine the best course of treatment for their individual case.and assign anti-rheumatic drugs.
If you or a loved one wish to see a rheumatologist or other specialist, you may need to work with the patient’s primary care physician and health insurance provider in order to obtain a referral to an appropriate doctor.
For many patients, the primary concern in choosing a specialist is cost. Your health insurance provider can assist you in finding a specialist in your area who is covered by your insurance plan. If you are not able to find a physician who is fully covered under your plan, you may need to work with your health insurance provider or other local resources to arrange for an affordable treatment plan.
While affordability can be a significant concern, it is also important to choose a provider with whom you feel comfortable and who inspires your trust. You should also feel free to ask questions to determine what level of experience your physician has with your particular conditions and what treatments they typically recommend.
If you have already chosen a particular treatment strategy or determined that you do not wish to try certain treatments, you should speak with your prospective doctor to make sure they can provide the kind of care you want.
Some questions you may wish to ask a prospective physician include:
- Have you treated other patients with arthritis in the past?
- What kind of experience do you have with patients with my form of arthritis?
- What treatments would you initially recommend for a patient with my form of arthritis?
- Are there any lifestyle changes that may help me find relief from my symptoms?
- If I need surgery, where and how will this surgery be performed? Who will be my surgeon?
- If I need physical therapy or counseling, will you provide a referral?
- What kind of alternative treatments do you recommend for arthritis patients?
- If I need help performing daily activities, what additional resources can you recommend?
Depending on your health needs, you may need to seek care from a team of medical providers, including a primary care physician, a rheumatologist, a surgeon, a physical therapist, and/or a counselor. Your primary care physician or rheumatologist will be able to provide recommendations and referrals for additional medical providers. Your health insurance provider is also a valuable resource for finding physical therapists, counselors, and other specialists in your area or network.
1. What are the risk factors for arthritis?
Your chances of developing arthritis increase with age. Individuals who have certain medical conditions, such as autoimmune disorders, are also at an increased risk of developing arthritis.
If your job or recreational activities involve repetitive movement or cause injury to your joints, you may also be at risk of developing arthritis.
Your weight can also affect your chances of developing arthritis. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop arthritis.
2. What should I do if I suspect I have arthritis?
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of arthritis, speak to your doctor. Your doctor may perform a physical examination or they may order special tests — including X-rays or blood tests — to confirm their diagnosis.
If you suspect arthritis, seek medical care as soon as possible. Prompt medical treatment is important for successfully managing arthritis symptoms.
3. When should I contact a doctor about new arthritis symptoms?
If you have been diagnosed with arthritis and you experience new or worsening symptoms, contact your doctor right away. Any new or unusual symptoms should always be reported to your doctor.
If you have recently started a new medication or treatment and you develop additional symptoms, it is important to document these symptoms carefully and to notify your doctor as soon as possible.
4. Can arthritis be prevented?
While most forms arthritis cannot be completely prevented, you can minimize your risk of developing arthritis by following a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent arthritis. If you have arthritis and you are overweight or obese, losing weight may help ease your symptoms.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, may develop after an injury to a joint. You can minimize your risk of developing this type of arthritis by caring for your joints and doing your best to prevent injury. If you experience an injury to any of your joints, seek medical treatment and follow your doctor’s instructions to improve your chances of recovery.
5. Can arthritis be cured?
Arthritis cannot be cured. However, proper treatment can help to minimize symptoms and slow the progression of your illness. If a joint has been severely damaged by arthritis, surgery may be able to restore some of the joint function.
Proper medical treatment can help arthritis patients experience some relief from joint pain or stiffness. If your arthritis symptoms are not well-controlled, speak to your doctor about additional treatment options.
6. How is arthritis managed?
Arthritis is often treated with a combination of medical treatments and lifestyle changes. Your doctor may prescribe various medications to treat your arthritis. Arthritis may also be treated with physical therapy, massage, or hydrotherapy. In some cases, surgery is necessary.
You can help manage your arthritis by making the appropriate lifestyle changes. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active can help control your arthritis symptoms.
Some patients find that they also need to adjust their surroundings at home or work in order to remain comfortable. You may need to invest in new items or appliances — such as seat cushions or automatic can openers — in order to perform your daily tasks more easily.
7. Does arthritis cause any other health complications or medical conditions?
Arthritis has a high comorbidity with several other health conditions. The term “comorbidity” means that certain medical conditions often occur in the same patient, but it does not always mean that one condition causes the other.
People with arthritis have an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. You can decrease your risk of developing these conditions by maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle. Proper diet and regular physical activity can lower your chances of developing additional health problems.
8. Is exercise safe for a person with arthritis?
Regular physical activity can help manage arthritis symptoms. Exercise may help arthritis patients build strength in their joints and it can also be beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight. However, some forms of vigorous physical activity may be painful or uncomfortable for arthritis patients.
Low-impact activities like walking or bicycling are often safe and comfortable for people with arthritis. Swimming is another activity that may relieve stress and pain in the joint area. If you have questions about which activities are safe for you, contact your doctor or physical therapist.
People with arthritis may find that certain activities are uncomfortable from time to time. But if your regular exercise routine suddenly becomes painful or difficult, speak with a medical professional right away. Forcing yourself to exercise in a way that is painful may cause further damage to your joints.
9. What is the relationship between weight and arthritis?
Excess body weight places additional strain on joints, especially knees and hips. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop arthritis. Patients who have been diagnosed with arthritis can manage their symptoms by maintaining a healthy body weight.
If you have arthritis and you are overweight or obese, ask your doctor about strategies for achieving a healthy weight.
10. Can children or young adults to develop arthritis?
People of any age can develop arthritis. Children may be affected by any one of several different forms of arthritis. The most common form of arthritis that affects children is known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Symptoms of juvenile arthritis may include fever, flu-like symptoms, joint pain or stiffness, limping, and rash. If your child develops symptoms of arthritis, contact their pediatrician right away.
Proximity of care is very important when considering options
Research care options that are nearby when thinking about the next step for your loved ones.
Leona J. Werezak RN, BSN, MN is a registered nurse and adjunct nursing professor. She has 24 years experience working in a variety of healthcare settings including such remote locations as the Arctic Circle. Her research in early stage dementia was published in the Canadian Journal of Nursing Research and re-published in their 40th anniversary issue which showcased exceptional research published since the journal began. Her work in dementia care has also been published in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing. She currently teaches surgical nursing care on a thoracic/vascular unit to baccalaureate nursing students. Her clinical work with nursing students involves extensive work with older adults who have multiple chronic health conditions.