Arthritis not just ‘old people’s’ disease
Americans often think of arthritis as a disease that only affects older adults, the body’s joints wearing out after years of use. However, there are over 100 conditions that can cause pain or loss of use in the joints. Not all of them are the result of wear, and not all of them are exclusive to seniors.
In fact, far from being a disease that only “old people” get, arthritis can be found in people of all ages. It affects both men and women, as well as people of all races. According to the Arthritis Foundation, over 50 million adults and 300,000 children have arthritis in some form, and it is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
Arthritic conditions include those with symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, stiffness or loss of motion. These symptoms may start mild and grow worse over time. They may ease up for a while and then come back again, and they can cause a mild discomfort for years, only to progress into greater pain later.
Many of these conditions can also result in permanent disfiguration of the joints, everything from enlarged joints to internal damage only visible through scans or x-rays, and in some cases, arthritis may affect more than just the joints, including organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and eyes.
Osteoarthritis is the condition that most immediately comes to mind when we hear the word “arthritis.” It is they type of arthritis that occurs most often and is caused when the cartilage that makes up the joints and cushions the bones is worn away. This causes the bones to rub against one another, resulting in pain and swelling. The joints become stiff and can weaken over time.
While age is often a factor leading to osteoarthritis, it is not the only cause of the disease. Other circumstances like obesity, genetics and a previous injury to the affected joint can also contribute to its onset.
Another form of arthritis is caused by the immune system attacking the joints, causing inflammation and in some cases, wearing them down. Inflammation is a normal function of the body’s immune system, used to protect the body from bacteria and help wounds to heal, but sometimes this process stops working properly. It is in these cases when the joints become inflamed, and that inflammation can also lead to damage in the body’s other organs.
Rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis are both forms of this type of condition, as is Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, the form of arthritis most often found in children. While research into these inflammatory diseases is still ongoing, scientist suspect they may be caused by a combination of genetics and environmental influences, such as smoking and diet.
Inflammation can also be caused by the body’s natural reaction to an infection in the joints. Foodborne illnesses such as salmonella and some sexually transmitted diseases are among the viruses, bacteria and fungi which sometimes attack the joints, causing them to become swollen and painful when the body tries to fight these invaders.
Gout is an arthritic condition caused by a buildup of uric acid in the blood. Uric acid is the result of the body breaking down purines, substances found in cells and in foods such as beer, red meat, cured meats, and certain seafoods. For people with gout, the body has more uric acid than it can handle, which leads to sharp crystals forming in the joints. These gout attacks can increase or decrease depending on the level of uric acid in the person’s body, and they can be quite painful.
Treatments for arthritis vary, depending on which arthritic condition is found in the joints. In the case of osteoarthritis, for example, mild exercise may be used to maintain joint function, while over-the-counter products can be used to manage pain. Diet and exercise are also useful in keeping osteoarthritis at bay, since staying at a moderate weight will keep extra stress off the joints. Injuries and repetitive motions should also be avoided.
If joint pain or mobility loss become chronic enough to affect a person’s quality of life, their doctor may recommend joint replacement.
Proper diagnosis and treatment are important to treating inflammatory arthritis. Prescription medications are available to battle autoimmune forms of arthritis, and if used quickly, they may slow the progression of the disease and prevent lasting damage to the joints. Antibiotics can be used to treat infections in the joints caused by bacteria and can stop them before they cause permanent damage.
Gout attacks may be mitigated or prevented by avoiding those foods high in purines, which lead to excess uric acid in the body.
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