When you think about arthritis, your brain may immediately think of elderly adults with swollen, painful joints, and who have trouble walking or tying their shoes. While arthritis does indeed cause problems for many older Americans, it’s a much bigger issue than most people probably realize.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Americans is affected by the disease, including more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children. In addition to causing problems in the joints, arthritis can affect the skin, eyes, heart and lungs as well. The disease is also something many working adults struggle with every day, as up to two-thirds of arthritis sufferers are adults between the ages of 18 and 64.
The CDC, Arthritis Foundation and other partners have teamed up to observe Arthritis Awareness Month annually in May, shining a light on the disease and recognizing the millions of Americans who live with it.
The Arthritis Foundation explains that arthritis isn’t a single disease, but a term used to encompass more than 100 joint diseases that contribute to the leading cause of disability in the United States. Common symptoms, which may fluctuate in severity, include stiffness, pain, swelling, and a decrease in range of motion. Severe arthritis can lead to chronic pain, limiting a person’s ability to walk, climb stairs, and do other daily activities.
The four main types of arthritis include the following:
- Degenerative, also called osteoarthritis. This is the most common form of the disease, caused when cartilage becomes worn away and bones rub against each other, producing pain, swelling and stiffness.
- Inflammatory, such as rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. These conditions occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks a person’s joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion and damage to internal organs, eyes, and other parts of the body.
- Infectious. This type of arthritis is caused when a bacterium, virus or fungus enters a joint (via food poisoning or contamination, sexually transmitted diseases, or blood-to-blood infections) and triggers inflammation.
- Metabolic. This condition is caused when a person’s body produces excess uric acid, which builds up and creates needle-like crystals in the joints, resulting in extreme pain or gout attacks.
Depending on the type of arthritis a patient has, and the severity of the disease, a broad array of treatment options are available ranging from natural treatments and medications to surgery.
Venkat Rapuri, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial and Orthopedic Medicine Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says he typically deals with patients who are looking at surgery as the next step in their treatment plans.
“My area of expertise is doing total replacement surgeries and joint reconstructions,” he says. “I see a lot of patients at the end of their non-operative treatment cycle when they are looking for surgery to get some relief. The good news is that there have been a lot of new developments in joint replacement surgery that have been giving very encouraging results.”
Due to the different types of arthritis, diverse symptoms, and the varied ways each disease type may respond to surgery, there can be quite a bit of misunderstanding about which surgery will and won’t do. As a result, it’s important for patients to ask questions, do their research, and know what they’re getting into before going under the knife.
“One of the misconceptions regarding rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is that when a knee or hip replacement is done that the RA in the joint is gone, which isn’t true,” Rapuri explains. “Also, patients will have a very different prognosis based on their type of arthritis, so an RA patient having a knee replacement won’t be the same as an osteoarthritis patient.”
In an article reviewing treatment options for patients with joint pain, Karim Elsharkawy, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Center for Joint Replacement, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, explains the importance of maintaining realistic expectations when facing joint replacement surgery.
Rapuri agrees that patient self-education is important, as well as understanding that while surgery may seem like a drastic step, it is one that can be life-changing.
“If there was something I wish patients were more educated about, it would be the new trends and developments in joint replacement surgery, so they would know a bit more about their options,” he said. “Also, when a patient comes to the point of having joint replacement therapy because medical treatment has stopped working, they shouldn’t despair. On the contrary, it may mean getting back to a functional life again.”