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Arthritis

The basics of arthritis

  • Arthritis is the tenderness and swelling of one or more joints; some forms of the disease cause deterioration of the bone and/or joint lining.
  • Different forms of arthritis often develop from different causes, such as overuse of the joint, autoimmune disorders or injuries.
  • If left untreated, it can further reduce physical function and lead to other problems that affect a person’s ability to perform activities of daily life.
  • We offer physical therapy, occupational therapy and pain management to help alleviate symptoms and get patients back in action.

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What is arthritis?

Arthritis is the tenderness and swelling of one or more joints, a condition which often worsens with age. The initial onset typically occurs between the ages of 30 and 50, though it can affect children, teens and younger adults.

About 59 million people in the United States, or roughly 1 in 4, have doctor-diagnosed cases of this disease. The Arthritis Foundation reports that the real number of people living with arthritis is closer to 91 million. Either way, this condition is the leading cause of disability in the country.

Arthritis is more common in women (23.5%) compared with men (18.1%), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The incidence of it increases with age; it is also more common in people who do not meet daily physical activity recommendations.

Causes of arthritis & arthritis symptoms

Different types of arthritis often develop from different causes (see the list of common types below). The disease may be caused by the wear and tear of a joint due to overuse. It can also stem from injuries, autoimmune disorders, genetics, age or muscle weakness.

Gender can also play a part in the development of arthritis. For example, more women develop it in general, but men are more likely to develop gout. There are risk factors for becoming arthritic that can and should be avoided as well, such as obesity and smoking.

The primary symptoms of arthritis are stiffness and joint pain. These symptoms often worsen as someone ages. Different types of the disease can have additional symptoms such as inflammation of the eyes, skin and heart.

Learn about the different types and signs 

Risks of not treating arthritis

If left untreated, symptoms may worsen and affect daily life. The condition can reduce mobility and increase the risk of metabolic disorders due to weight gain from lack of movement.  Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause inflammation in other parts of the body such as the blood vessels, lungs and eyes.

Arthritis can limit range of motion and increase the risk of falls, affecting a person’s work or daily activities and putting the person in danger of injury. The inability to move freely along with the pain often associated with the condition can also lead to poor mental health.

Physical therapy for arthritis

The primary goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Our team of physical therapists work together to create the best treatment plan to help our clients get back to the activities they love. This plan is built around the type of arthritis the client is experiencing, severity of symptoms, joint damage, and the level of activity to which they hope to return.

Our arthritis therapy, whether a regular physical therapy program or more advanced occupational therapy, can reduce arthritic pain and the disease’s progression.

The keys to achieving this are increasing mobility of the affected joints, strengthening the support of those joints and instituting a plan to maintain overall fitness. This is different for each person, but generally involves:

  • Prescribing a variety of general physical therapy techniques that strengthen the muscles around the affected joints to improve flexibility and balance.
  • Education about posture and the mechanics of movement to reduce pain and increase function in common activities the patient engages in.
  • Recommendations for assistance devices, such as canes and walkers for mobility when needed, shoe inserts to relieve stress, and braces, splints and taping that support affected joints.
  • Suggestions for when to use hot and cold therapy to relieve pain and stiffness, or on adapting the environment, such as padded mats for work areas or the kitchen.

Many of our locations also offer aquatic therapy as part of our pain management program. This allows patients to move and strengthen their body without unnecessary pressure on sore joints.

Our physical therapists often give our clients homework including daily movement, functional training and exercises developed to continue improving strength, balance and mobility outside of the clinic.

When to see a physician for arthritis

A primary care physician or rheumatologist (a specialist in arthritis) can assist with treatment by prescribing medication to help with discomfort and healing. The physician may also suggest surgical options if necessary. Clients may also want to consult an orthopedist if they are suffering from a degenerative form of the disease.

Types of arthritis

Although there are more than 100 types of arthritis, some are more common than others. More frequently seen forms of the disease include the following.

Osteoarthritis

This is the most common form. Osteoarthritis causes cartilage (the tissue covering the ends of bones where a joint is formed) to break down. Although this most often occurs in the hands, hips, spine and knees, osteoarthritis can damage any joint in the body. This damage cannot be reversed, but treatment can help manage symptoms. Maintaining a healthy diet and weight along with staying active may also slow the progression of the disease and improve joint function while reducing pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis

This is the second most common form of arthritis. It is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just the joints. The inflammation caused by this condition has the ability to damage many body systems including the eyes, heart, skin, lungs and blood vessels.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues by mistake. Instead of wearing down tissue, this form of the disease affects the lining of the joints, causing painful swelling that can result in joint deformity and bone erosion. Although treatment may help alleviate some symptoms, rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.

Gout

Gout is another common form of arthritis that can affect anyone. It is caused when there is too much uric acid in the blood, forming uric acid crystals. Uric acid is a waste product that is created when the body breaks down chemicals called purines.

Gout’s major symptoms include sudden and severe attacks of pain, redness, tenderness and swelling in the joints. This most often occurs in the big toe. These attacks can happen abruptly, even waking the person up during the night with a strong burning sensation in the joint. The symptoms of gout may come and go, but there are techniques to manage these symptoms and prevent future flare ups.

Thumb arthritis

As people age, it is common to develop this condition in the thumb. With this form of arthritis, cartilage wears away from the ends of the bones that come together to form the joint at the base of the thumb, or the carpometacarpal joint.

Thumb arthritis can cause swelling, severe pain and decreased range of motion and strength, making simple tasks more difficult. Common treatments include medication, specific exercise and splints, though more severe cases may require surgery.

Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory disease that can cause some of the vertebrae (bones in the spine) to fuse over time. This decreases flexibility in the back and can lead to a hunched posture. It can also affect the ribs, making it difficult to breathe deeply. This type of arthritis affects men more often than women. Early intervention with physical therapy can have a significant impact in reducing future deformity.  There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis, but symptoms can be managed with treatment.

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis

Formerly known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, this autoimmune disease is the most common type of arthritis found in children under the age of 16. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis can cause swelling, stiffness and persistent joint pain. While some children may experience symptoms for a few months, others can experience discomfort for years.

Some forms of this condition can cause ongoing complications such as joint damage, eye inflammation and growth issues. Treatment for juvenile idiopathic arthritis helps control inflammation and pain, improve function and prevent damage.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis can affect people with psoriasis, a disease that creates red patches of skin with silvery scales. This form of arthritis typically shows up years after a person is diagnosed with psoriasis, but some people can experience both problems at the same time. Psoriatic arthritis can affect any part of the body, and symptoms can range from severe to relatively mild.

Much like psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis flares can alternate with periods of remission. While there is no cure for this type of arthritis, treatment may help prevent joint damage and control symptoms. If left untreated, psoriatic arthritis can become debilitating.

Reactive arthritis

Previously referred to as Reiter’s syndrome, reactive arthritis is swelling and joint pain prompted by an infection in another part of the body, often the genitals, intestines or urinary tract. Symptoms usually appear in the knees and the joints of the ankles and feet. Inflammation of the eyes, skin and urethra is also frequently observed. This condition is not common. For most people the signs and symptoms come and go, eventually clearing up within a year.

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is a painful infection in a joint caused by germs that travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. This form of arthritis can also occur when an injury that penetrates the skin delivers germs directly to the joint. It is more common in infants and older adults, as well as in people with artificial joints.

Septic arthritis is most often found in the knees but can also develop in the shoulders, hips and other joints. Prompt treatment is important as the infection can quickly and severely damage the bone and cartilage within the joint.

Get informed

Read more about related physical therapy services and health information to treat arthritis.

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