Arthritis is a group of more than 100 disease and conditions affecting the joints and, in some cases, other organs as well. It is one of the most common medical problems in the United States affecting nearly 70 million Americans, or one in three adults. Some of the most common forms are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, gout, systemic lupus erythematosus, tendonitis, bursitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Each of these conditions affects different sunsets of the population and has its own characteristic symptoms and changes in the joint function. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, for example, may affect children as young as three, while osteoarthritis primarily affects older individuals.

Technically, arthritis means inflammation of a joint. But in reality, arthritis can result from normal wear and tear, as in osteoarthritis, or from inflammation, as in rheumatoid arthritis. Other forms of arthritis result from injury, infection, or metabolic problems. Some cases result from unknown causes. With rheumatoid arthritis, it’s unclear what causes the inflammation, but possible the body’s immune system attacks the tissue lining the joints. Symptoms associated with arthritis include not just pain but also stiffness and swelling in joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.

While arthritis affects all age ranges, it is especially prevalent among older adults. It is estimated that almost 59 percent of adults over age 65 have arthritis or other chronic joint symptoms, compared to 42 percent of those 45 to 65 years old and 19 percent of those ages 18 to 44 (CDC, 2004).

The pain and costs associated with arthritis are staggering. It is the leading cause of disability among American adults. Twenty percent of adults with arthritis report limitation in activity; this accounts for approximately 3 million to 4 million older adults. Statistics show that arthritis costs the country $ 51.1 billion annually in medical expenses and another $ 35 billion in lost wages among those still working.

While some of the risk factors for arthritis-genetic make-up, hormone levels, and gender (women have higher incidence)- cannot be controlled, other factors such as lifestyle behaviors of weight and exercise can. The prevalence of arthritis in American adults was 44.5 percent in those who are inactive versus 28.9 percent in those who follow recommended daily activity levels. Similarly, the prevalence of arthritis was 44.6 percent in obese persons compares to 26.6 percent in those of normal weight (CDC, 2004).

The misperception that arthritis is just a normal part of aging prevents many seniors from seeking medical advice or taking advantage of various therapies that help control pain and preserve their active involvement in life. Often, seniors assume that the pain, stiffness, and limitations of their activities are something that they simply must accommodate. But in fact, simple medications such as aspirin and acetaminophen, rest, joint protection, weight loss, muscle strengthening, and exercises to promote joint mobility are sufficient to allow many seniors to maintain normal activities with very tolerable levels of discomfort.

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, striking 0.3 to 1.5 percent of the American population (Pisetsky & Trien, 1992) and crossing all ethnic, racial, and age groups. It can cause severe pain and crippling deformities, such as gnarled, misshapen fingers. Typically, rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed among 40 to 50-year olds. Studies indicate that women are three times more likely to develop the condition than men (Long, 1997).

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease and is the major cause of disability in older Americans, affection approximately 10 percent of the older population (Long, 1997). Also called degenerative joint disease (DJD), it is not an inflammatory process but rather the result of wear and tear on cartilage, the substance that cushions ends of bones within a joint. Over time, cartilage becomes less elastic and less spongy and, therefore, less effective in cushioning bones. Cartilage may even thin to the point that bones rub directly on degeneration of their joints, while the prevalence of it among those in their 80s and 90s is almost 100 percent (Pisetsky & Trien, 1992). While osteoarthritis clearly involves age-related wear and tear, other factors contribute to its use (e.g., baseball pitching, needlework, carpentry). The weight-bearing joints such as the knee and hip may even deteriorate to the point of requiring surgical replacement.

Treatment For Arthritis

The occurrence and severity of arthritic symptoms is highly variable. Sometimes it presents stiffness in the morning or when the affected joint is held in one position, with increased discomfort at the end of the day or during increased activity. Other symptoms include joint discomfort with weather changes, swelling, aching, redness, or warmth.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis. According to the Arthritis Foundation, treatment of osteoarthritis focuses on decreasing pain and improving joint movement, and may include (Arthritis Foundation, 2004):

  • Exercises to keep joints flexible and improve muscle strength
  • heat/cold therapy for temporary pain relief
  • joint protection to prevent strain or stress on painful joints
  • surgery to relieve chronic pain in damage joints
  • weight control to prevent extra stress on weight-bearing joints

The Arthritis Foundation offers self-management and physical activity classes to teach the importance of staying active and how to go about it. Information about arthritis, exercise, relaxation techniques, and conditioning are some components of the classes, which have resulted in 20 percent reduction in pain and 40 percent reduction in physician visits for those completing the courses.

When it comes to arthritis, seniors must dispel the misperceptions that arthritis is just a normal part of aging that seniors must endure. It is, in fact, a disease that can be effectively treated. Seniors should be encouraged not to simply accept pain, discomfort, and limitations on their activities. Rather, they should accept pain, discomfort, and limitations on their activities. Rather, they should be advised that effective therapy is available to allow them to continue with meaningful activities. Seniors who suffer from arthritis should be encouraged to seek medical evaluation and advice.

The above information was provided by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors (SCSA)