What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition characterized by stiffness and inflammation, or swelling, of the joints. It’s not one type of disease, but it’s a general way of referring to joint pain or joint diseases. An estimated 52.5 million American adults have some type of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s a little over one in five Americans.

While you may only experience mild discomfort at the beginning of the condition, symptoms can worsen over time. They may eventually cause work limitations and affect your day to day. While your risk for arthritis can increase with age, it’s not limited to older adults. Furthermore, there are different risk factors associated with different types of arthritis.

Understanding the causes and risk factors of arthritis can help you and your doctor take preventive measures. This can help keep your symptoms from worsening or delay the onset of the condition.

While there are many different types of arthritis, the two major categories are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Each of these arthritis types have different causes.

Wear and tear

OA is most commonly the result of wear-and-tear to the joints. Use of the joints over time can contribute to the breakdown of protective cartilage in your joints. This causes bone to rub against bone. That feeling can be very painful and restrict movement.


RA is when the body’s immune system attacks itself. Specifically the body attacks the membrane that surrounds the joint parts. This can result in inflamed or swollen joints, destruction of cartilage and bone, and ultimately pain. You may also experience other symptoms of inflammation, such as fever and loss of appetite.


Sometimes, traumatic injury or an infection in the joints can advance the progression of arthritis. For example, reactive arthritis is a type of arthritis that can follow some infections. This includes sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, fungal infections, and food-borne illnesses.


When the body breaks down purines, a substance found in cells and foods, it forms uric acid. Some people have high levels of uric acid. When the body can’t get rid of it, the acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joints. This causes extreme and sudden joint point, or a gout attack. Gout comes and goes, but if left untreated it can become chronic.

Other causes

Other skin and organ conditions can also cause arthritis. These include:

  • psoriasis, a skin disease caused by excessive skin cell turnover
  • Sjogren’s, a disorder that can cause decreased saliva and tears, and systemic disease
  • inflammatory bowel disease, or conditions that include inflammation of the digestive tract such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis

Sometimes arthritis can occur with no known cause. But there are also factors that can increase your risk for all types of arthritis.

Age: Advanced age increases a person’s risk for arthritis types such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.

Family history: You are more likely to have arthritis if your parent or sibling has an arthritis type.

Gender: Women are more likely to have RA than men while men are more likely to have gout.

Obesity: Excess weight can increase a person’s risk for OA because it puts more pressure on the joints.

History of previous injuries: Those who have injured a joint from playing sports, from a car accident, or other occurrences are more likely to experience arthritis later.

Even if you don’t feel the symptoms, you should discuss your potential risks for arthritis with your doctor. They can help provide ways to prevent or delay arthritis.

Just as the location of arthritis varies, not all people will have the same type of arthritis.


OA is the most common type of arthritis. The greatest risk factor for this condition is age. Normal pain and stiffness associated with getting older doesn’t go away when you have this condition. Previous injuries in childhood and young adulthood can also cause osteoarthritis, even if you think you fully recovered.

Rheumatoid arthritis

RA is the second most common type of arthritis. In people younger than 16 years old, it’s called juvenile inflammatory arthritis (previously it was known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). This type of autoimmune disease causes the body to attacks tissues in the joints. You have a greater risk of getting this form of arthritis if you already have another type of autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or multiple sclerosis. Pain and visible swelling, especially in the hands, characterize this condition.


Gout is the third most common type of arthritis. When uric acid builds up, it crystalizes around the joints. This crystallization triggers inflammation, making it difficult and painful for bones to move. The Arthritis Foundation estimates that four percent of American adults develop gout, primarily in their middle ages. Obesity-related conditions can also increase your risk for high uric acid and gout. Signs of gout commonly start in the toes, but can occur in other joints in the body.

There is no single preventative measure for arthritis, especially considering all of the different forms that exist. But you can take steps to preserve joint function and mobility. These steps will also improve your overall quality of life.

Learning more about the disease can also help with early treatment. For example, if you know you have an autoimmune disorder, you can be mindful of early symptoms. The earlier you catch the disease and start treatment the better you may be able to delay the progression of the disease.

Some general recommendations as to how you can prevent arthritis include:

  • Eating a Mediterranean-style diet. A diet of fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, beans, and whole grains may help with inflammation. Decreasing your intake of sugar, wheat, and gluten may also help.
  • Eating a diet low in sugars. Sugars can contribute to inflammation and gout pain.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. This reduces the demands on your joints.
  • Exercising regularly. Physical activity can help reduce pain, improve mood, and increase joint mobility and function.
  • Refraining from smoking. The habit can worsen autoimmune disorders, and is a major risk-factor for rheumatoid arthritis
  • Seeing your doctor for yearly check-ups. Remember to report any symptoms that may be related to arthritis.
  • Wearing proper protective equipment. When playing sports or doing work, protective equipment can help prevent injuries.

Advanced arthritis can make mobility difficult, including the ability to perform everyday activities. Ideally, you would see your physician before your condition is in the advanced stages. That’s why it’s important to know about this condition, especially if you’re at risk for it.

Some general recommendations for when to see your physician include:

  • difficulty moving a particular joint
  • joint swelling
  • pain
  • redness
  • warmth at the affected joint

Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and evaluate your medical and family history. A doctor may order further testing, such as blood, urine, joint fluid tests, or imaging studies (x-rays or ultrasound). These tests can help determine what type of arthritis you have.

Your doctor may also use imaging tests to identify areas of injury or joint breakdown. Imaging tests include X-rays, ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging scans. This can also help rule out other conditions.

Your doctor may prescribe medication, recommend surgery, and encourage you to do physical therapy. At home you can ease arthritis pain by taking a warm shower, doing gentle stretching exercises, and using an ice pack on the sore area.

Osteoarthritis treatment

Your doctor may initially treat OA with conservative methods. These include topical or oral over-the-counter pain relievers, or icing or warming the affected joint. You may also be encouraged to engage in physical therapy exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint. If your osteoarthritis continues to advance, surgery may be recommended to repair or replace the joint. Joint replacement procedures are more common for large joints, such as the knees and hips.

How to treat OA »

Rheumatoid arthritis treatment

Doctors treat rheumatoid arthritis with medications that stop your immune system from attacking the joints. Other goals of treatment include relieving symptoms, preventing further damage and improve your overall being. Examples of these medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and DMARDs. In serious cases of RA, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Read more: The anti-inflammatory diet for RA »

Gout treatment

Doctors treat gout by recommending a low sugar, purine, and alcohol-free diet. Purines are a precursor to uric acid, a buildup of which can lead to joint pain. In some instances, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat gout, such as the following:

  • Allopurinol
  • Febuxostat
  • Probenecid
  • Pegloticase

Read more: 9 ways to relieve arthritis pain naturally »

Talk to your doctor about your treatment options. Treatments for arthritis can be specific to the type of arthritis.