As we age, we tend to become more aware of common diseases associated with aging. One chronic disease that affects many older adults is arthritis, which causes joint pain, stiffness and swelling.
Arthritis is one of the body’s natural reactions to disease or injury and is very common, especially as we get older. The good news is that it can be managed.
“If you suspect you may have arthritis, your primary care physician can do an exam and order tests and based on the findings can determine if you have the condition and refer you to a specialist if necessary,” says Yawen Cheng, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.
Nearly 60 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with arthritis, , according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2040, the number is expected to grow to nearly 80 million.
Almost half of adults 65 and older have some form of arthritis, according to the CDC.
Arthritis also more common in people with other chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Arthritis is not a single disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. Women are more likely to get it than men. Rheumatoid arthritis, gout and fibromyalgia are other common forms of arthritis.
Arthritis diagnosis often begins with a primary care physician performing a physical exam, and when necessary, running blood tests and imaging scans to get to the source of the problem.
“It’s vital for patients to establish good relationships with their physicians so they have medical professionals to turn to when health concerns like arthritis arise,” says Dr. Cheng.
Each type of arthritis can have different symptoms. Some do not have any symptoms outside the joint. Other forms cause fatigue, fever and a rash. Most types of arthritis show signs of joint inflammation, including swelling and stiffness.
Rheumatologists typically manage treatment for inflammatory arthritis, gout and other complicated cases. In some cases involving advanced arthritis, an orthopedic surgeon may perform joint surgery, including joint replacements.
Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, for example, have similar symptoms but are separate conditions with different causes and treatments.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that involves inflammation in the lining of the joints and/or other internal organs. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease marked by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. “Most patients who have arthritis have osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Kaye.
“Rheumatologists are experts in diagnosing all arthritis problems as well as the origins of pain that a patient might be experiencing,” says Dr. Kaye. “Most cases turn out to be benign and can be managed by the primary care physician, but those that are complicated, such as rheumatoid arthritis, stay with the rheumatologist.”
There are steps people can take to reduce their risk of developing the disease, including:
“Excess weight puts an extra strain on joints, which can lead to arthritis,” says Dr. Cheng.
“Consuming foods rich in calcium and vitamin D will help to strengthen bones and muscles,” says Dr. Cheng. Foods rich in vitamin D include seafood, such as cod and wild-caught salmon, fortified milk and eggs. Yogurt, sardines, beans and almonds are high in calcium and other nutrients.
Exercise helps develop strong muscles, which can protect and support joints.
When you injure your joints while playing sports or in an accident, you can damage cartilage and cause it to wear out more quickly. Avoid injury by using the proper safety equipment when playing sports and learn correct exercise techniques.
If you think you are at risk for arthritis, see your primary care physician. The damage from arthritis is usually progressive. However, your physician can suggest treatments or lifestyle changes that can slow the progress of arthritis. When necessary, your physician can refer you to a rheumatologist.