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Arthritis is a term used to refer to more than 100 different diseases that cause pain, swelling and limited movement in joints and their connective tissue. According to the Arthritis Foundation, 43 million people in the United States, or as many as one in six people, suffers from some form of the condition. Most forms of arthritis are chronic, meaning they continue for a long time, significantly affecting the lifestyles of those living with it.

Arthritis is a condition that results from the wearing down of cartilage, the tissue that pads bones in a joint. Some researchers believe that when the joints are unable to react properly to stress, the cartilage is damaged, leading to the development of this arthritis. It can affect joints in almost any part of the body, from the hands to the knees. Some forms cause changes you can see and feel, such as swelling, warmth and redness in your joints. In some cases, the pain and swelling may only last a short period of time, but are very intense. Other cases cause fewer noticeable symptoms, but may inflict damage on joints slowly over a long period of time.

When all ages are considered, a similar percentage of men and women have arthritis; however, it affects them in different ways. In women, hands, knees, ankles and feet seem to be more directly affected, while in men, symptoms are more likely to appear in the hips, wrist and spine. Women are also more likely to experience symptoms in more than one joint than are men. With early diagnosis and a specialized treatment program, however, the painful symptoms of most types of arthritis can be managed successfully.

The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Among seniors, OA is the most frequent form, which currently affects more than 20 million Americans, most of whom are women over the age of 45. It starts when cartilage becomes thin and begins to wear away. When OA is at its worst, all of the cartilage breaks down, leaving bones to rub against each other. This condition is most likely to occur in the hands, neck, lower back, knees and hips. Other joints affected may include the wrists, elbows, shoulders, and ankles, but this occurs less frequently. When OA is found in these joints, it is usually due to an injury or an unusual amount of stress to the area.

Some people with OA may experience symptoms such as stiffness and mild pain during activities like walking and bending, while others may experience severe joint pain on a more consistent basis, even during periods of rest. OA usually comes on slowly. In the early stages of the disease, joints may ache only after physical work or exercise. Many times people with arthritis do not experience any symptoms in the initial stages of the disease, as it often takes a long time to progress.

OA is hard to prevent, as the most common risk factor for developing it is simply growing older. Some experts believe the cause depends on which part of the body is affected. OA in the hands and hips, for instance, may be genetic and OA in the knees may be linked to being overweight. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing OA include:

  • Being female - Before age 45, OA is known to occur more frequently in men. But after age 45, it occurs more commonly in women, particularly in the hands.

  • Injury or overuse - Traumatic injury to a joint, which may be caused by physical labor or sports, increases your risk of developing OA in that joint. In addition, the more repeatedly a joint is used, the more likely it is to be affected by OA.

  • Hereditary gene defect - A defect in one of the genes responsible for a cartilage component called collagen can cause cartilage to deteriorate, leading to the development of OA.

  • Joint alignment - If you have conditions such as bowlegs, dislocated hips or double-jointedness, your joints either move or fit together incorrectly and you are more likely to develop OA in them.

The other most common form of arthritis, RA (rheumatoid arthritis), differs from osteoarthritis in many ways. RA is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's natural immune system does not operate as it should. With RA, the body actually attacks the lining of its own joint (or joints) just like it would if it were trying to protect itself from injury or disease. When a person has a splinter, for example, the skin around the splinter becomes inflamed - swollen, red and painful. RA causes inflammation of the joint, causing pain, stiffness and swelling that can last for hours at a time. Like OA, RA can affect several different joints, from the fingers and wrists to the neck and shoulders. RA not only damages joints; it can also attack organs such as the heart, muscles and eyes.

Approximately 21 million adults in the United States currently suffer from RA. It is two to three more time likely to affect women than men, and can occur at any age, generally between the ages of 20 and 50.

Symptoms of RA tend to include joint tenderness, inflammation, pain, warmth and swelling. Fatigue and the occasional fever are also associated with RA. In addition to inflammation of the joints, it can also cause inflammation of the tear glands, salivary glands, the lining of the heart, and the lungs. An interesting difference to note between OA and RA is that if you have an inflamed joint on one side of your body, you will likely have the same pain on the other side. RA in the left knee, for example, also affects the right knee. While RA is a chronic disease, symptoms may come and go. Periods of worsening symptoms are called flare-ups.

The cause of RA is unknown, but experts believe a number of factors may contribute to its development. Like OA, genetic factors may play a role. Environmental factors may also have something to do with the development of RA, as well. Research has also shown that the condition can be triggered by an infection, although RA is not contagious.



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Cord Blood Registry
March of Dimes
Susan G. Komen

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