Overview of Arthritis

Arthritis is joint degeneration that causes pain. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type. It is a progressive disorder in which the hyaline cartilage, which allows joints to move (or articulate) freely, degenerates resulting in the destruction of cartilage and the development of conditions such as bone spurs. It occurs in both men and women and is a result of aging. While some people in their 20s and 30s have articular changes, osteoarthritis usually develops gradually and may not cause symptoms for decades. Symptoms frequently occur by age 50 or 60.

Pain and stiffness, especially after exercise, are the most common symptoms, and weight-bearing joints, such as the knee and hip, and the upper extremities, including the neck, are often affected. Symptoms frequently occur in the joints on only one side of the body.

Osteoarthritis also may be caused by trauma, joint overuse, infection, genetic disorders, and endocrine imbalances. Western medical treatment involves moderate exercise and stretching, lifestyle modification, and the use of drugs to reduce inflammation. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, only symptomatic relief.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that affects the joints and ultimately contributes to joint destruction and loss of normal function. It is most common in women and frequently occurs in midlife. While environmental and genetic factors have been suspected, the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown.

Western medicine generally holds that a major contributing factor is an autoimmune condition in which an antibody (rheumatoid factor) attacks a normal component of the immune system (IgG). Through a complex process, this autoimmune response causes severe inflammation of the joints, tenderness, stiffness, pain, swelling, and nodulation.

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis generally affects the same joints on both sides of the body. Western medical treatment includes medications to reduce inflammation, immunosuppressive drugs, rest, immobilization of joints when necessary, and the use of steroids. Physicians may try other medications, such as gold compounds, as well. Appropriate exercise helps maintain range of motion in joints.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2015