What is Arthritis and Why Does it Hurt So Much?


If aging parents are complaining about pain and stiffness, it could be arthritis. Arthritis is one of the most common diseases in this country. Millions of adults and half of all people age 65 and older are troubled by this disease.

Arthritis can attack joints in almost any part of the body. Some forms of arthritis cause changes you can see and feel—swelling, warmth, and redness in your joints. In some the pain and swelling last only a short time, but are very bad. Other types cause less troublesome symptoms, but still slowly damage your joints.

Warning Signs

  • Lasting joint pain
  • Joint swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Tenderness or pain when touching a joint
  • Problems using or moving a joint normally
  • Warmth and redness in a joint

If any one of these symptoms lasts longer than 2 weeks, have your parent see their  regular doctor or a rheumatologist. If your loved one has a fever, feels physically ill, suddenly has a swollen joint, or has problems using their joints, see your doctor sooner. Your health care provider will ask questions about the elder's symptoms and do a physical exam. He or she may take x-rays or do lab tests before suggesting a treatment plan.

Types of Arthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis in older people. OA starts when cartilage begins to become ragged and wears away. Cartilage is the tissue that pads bones in a joint. OA symptoms can range from stiffness and mild pain that comes and goes with activities like walking, bending, or stooping to severe joint pain that keeps on even when the elder is resting or trying sleep.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. In RA, the body attacks the lining of a joint just as it would if it were trying to protect you from injury or disease. For example, if your elderly parent had a splinter in their finger, the finger would become inflamed—painful, red, and swollen. RA leads to inflammation in the joints. This inflammation causes pain, swelling, and stiffness that lasts for hours. This can often happen in many different joints at the same time. Your aging parent might not even be able to move the joint. People with RA often don't feel well. They may be tired or run a fever. People of any age can develop RA, and it is more common in women.

Gout is one of the most painful forms of arthritis. An attack can begin when crystals of uric acid form in the connective tissue and/or joint spaces. These deposits lead to swelling, redness, heat, pain, and stiffness in the joint. Gout attacks often follow eating foods like shellfish, liver, dried beans, peas, anchovies, or gravy. Gout is most often a problem in the big toe, but it can affect other joints, including the ankle, elbow, knee, wrist, hand, or other toes. Swelling may cause the skin to pull tightly around the joint and make the area red or purple and very tender. 
Read more about Gout.

Reactive Arthritis is a form of arthritis, or joint inflammation, that occurs as a "reaction" to an infection elsewhere in the body. Reactive arthritis is also known as Reiter's syndrome. Besides this joint inflammation, reactive arthritis is associated with two other symptoms: redness and inflammation of the eyes (conjunctivitis) and inflammation of the urinary tract (urethritis).  Read more about Reactive Arthritis.

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Other forms of arthritis include psoriatic arthritis (in people with the skin condition psoriasis), ankylosing spondylitis (which mostly affects the spine), reactive arthritis (arthritis that occurs as a reaction to another illness in the body), and arthritis in the temporomandibular joint (where the jaw joins the skull).

Source: The National Institute on Aging (NIA)

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