What is Arthritis?

We now know that arthritis isn’t just one ailment — the word arthritis describes over 150 different conditions! These conditions, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to Paget disease, generally (but don’t always) have two things in common: joint pain and inflammation. Different kinds of arthritis can have a number of different symptoms. Some may not cause inflammation. Some forms of arthritis and related conditions, such as lupus, cause inflammation in many places other than joints. Thus, rheumatism is sometimes substituted to describe the same group of conditions. But whatever the name, 50 million Americans (more than one-fifth of Americans over the age of 18) have some form of arthritis.

Arthritis can affect any joint. It most often appears in the joints of the hands, feet, and spine, as well as in the knees and hips. Although some forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, become more common as people grow older, arthritis can develop at any age. According to the Arthritis Foundation, approximately 294,000 Americans under the age of 18 have some form of arthritis.

Although only a few forms of arthritis can be cured, most forms are treatable and manageable. People with arthritis may face challenges, but with the right attitude, help from their health-care team, and often some lifestyle changes, most people with arthritis can continue to enjoy full, active lives.

Common kinds of arthritis

Now that you have a better sense of arthritis overall, let’s look at some of the common kinds.

Osteoarthritis (OA). Osteoarthritis, sometimes called degenerative joint disease (DJD), is the most common form of arthritis and becomes increasingly likely with age. OA affects cartilage, the slick, rubbery material that acts as a lubricating cushion between bones. In people with OA, the cartilage wears away, which can cause pain, stiffness, and bony growths called spurs. Find out more

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis. Inflammatory arthritis is arthritis that causes inflammation — the painful, warm, red, swelling that can sometimes bring loss of function. RA can occur at any age and is more common in women (up to three-fourths of people with RA are women). Over time, RA can cause serious joint damage. Find out more

Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is the progressive loss of density and strength in bones. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fracture, and can decrease height and cause kyphosis, an outward curve in the spine sometimes called a dowager’s hump. Despite these symptoms, osteoporosis is often painless, and is often called a “silent” condition. Osteoporosis might progress undetected until a fracture occurs after an unusually light trauma. In people with severe osteoporosis, even a sneeze may be enough to break a bone. Although treatments are available, there are many things you can do right now to prevent osteoporosis. Find out more

Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is not technically a joint condition but instead affects muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues around joints. The most important characteristic of fibromyalgia is chronic pain in many areas of the body, usually in the form of aching and stiffness. Fibromyalgia is estimated to affect 10 million people of all ages, though an estimated 90% of people with the condition are women over the age of 40. Find out more

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Systemic lupus erythematosus causes inflammation in many parts of the body, including joints, but does not usually cause joint damage. Symptoms of lupus vary, but a red rash, often on the nose and cheeks, is common. Many people with SLE also experience fatigue and depression. Find out more

The list goes on

These are just a few of the many kinds of arthritis affecting people everywhere every day. To learn about other kinds, visit the Arthritis A–Z.

Last Reviewed May 7, 2012

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Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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