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What is arthritis? A guide to understanding your joints

Woman sitting on a brown couch rubs her knee

Achy, stiff knees or other joints? Here’s what to know.

We hear a lot about arthritis — and for good reason.

The condition makes it difficult for many of us to walk and move. And it affects nearly 60 million American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even though arthritis is common, you might be surprised to know that it isn’t one thing. The name actually applies to more than 100 conditions that cause joint pain, stiffness and swelling. 

Lisa Doherty, MD, a PeaceHealth family medicine doctor in Longview, Washington, shares key insights about arthritis and how it can affect your joints.

Types and symptoms of arthritis

Two of the most common types of arthritis are:

  • Osteoarthritis. Often called the “wear and tear” type, it frequently shows up in hands, knees and hips.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis. An autoimmune condition, this type happens when your body's natural defense system attacks your joints.

Others types include gout, psoriatic arthritis and lupus-related arthritis.

Yet they can often share the same symptoms of swelling, joint pain, stiffness and the inability to flex or extend the joint. Some types of arthritis can cause fatigue, fever and rashes.

Because there are so many kinds of arthritis, it’s helpful to talk with a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms, said Dr. Doherty.

Cause of arthritis

A few things that influence your chances of having one of the common forms of arthritis include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Carrying extra weight
  • Joint injuries

“Active people, particularly those who work hard physically, are much more likely to develop arthritis,” said Dr. Doherty.

Reducing your risk for arthritis 

While you can’t completely prevent arthritis, there are actions you can take to protect your joints.

Dr. Doherty stresses the value of maintaining a healthy weight. “It’s something that is undervalued for people with arthritis. The more you weigh, the more strain you put on your joints.”

She also recommends paying attention to the kind activities you do. Limit actions that put too much stress on your joints, such as:

  • Jumping more than a few inches and landing on a hard surface (pavement or stone).
  • Overextending, twisting or locking a joint.
  • Carrying or lifting something heavy without proper form.

“Try to make sure that you have a safe environment — especially at work since that’s where you spend much of your time,” she said. Handrails, steps, ramps and dry floors help prevent slips, trips and falls.

You can use these ideas for modifying your work and home when you have arthritis. When you’re ready to exercise, follow this PeaceHealth doctor’s nine tips to protect your joints during a workout.

Diagnosing arthritis

Providers may diagnose arthritis using:

  • A physical exam.
  • A review of your medical history.
  • Blood tests.
  • Imaging tests, such as X-rays.

When to talk to your provider

“If you start to have pain in a joint, seek care early on,” said Dr. Doherty, “Then you can make changes to avoid further damage to the joint.”

A lot of people start to feel joint pain in their 40s and early 50s. Be careful about relying on over-the-counter medications to relieve it. 

“If you're using over-the-counter medicines for joint pain more than a couple times a week, then it’s definitely time to reach out to your doctor for longer-term options,” she said.

Don’t assume that because a medication is over the counter that it's safe.

“Using more than the recommended dose for longer than the recommended duration can actually damage your liver and kidneys pretty significantly,” Dr. Doherty stressed. 

Consider these tips on safely using over-the-counter medications.

Treating arthritis

Arthritis treatment depends on the type and severity of your condition. Medication and physical therapy can be useful. Providers also often recommend lifestyle changes such as weight loss, stress management and exercise.

“There are definite benefits to regular movement when you have arthritis,” said Dr. Doherty. “If you don't move, you have an increase in pain and stiffness. Staying active keeps your joints healthy longer.” 

Glucosamine supplements can also be helpful and safe — especially in the early stage of arthritis, she added. 

Why it’s important to treat arthritis

All forms of arthritis can limit your daily activities.

When movement is uncomfortable or painful, you might avoid doing activities you used to enjoy. You may slow down and withdraw. This can lead to depression, anxiety and discouragement. That can make it more difficult to get back to doing what you want.

If you have joint pain, stiffness or a family history of arthritis, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider.

portrait of Lisa L. Doherty MD

Lisa L. Doherty MD

Family Medicine - Obstetrics

Lisa L. Doherty MD practices Family Medicine in Longview.