Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles providing a current overview of arthritis.

It would be hard to overemphasize the impact of arthritis on Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented that just short of 50 percent of adults up to 65 years old have some form of it. For adults 65 and older that number rises to 62 percent. Surprisingly, almost 300,000 children under 18 also suffer from arthritis or a related condition.
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In all, as the population ages, almost 80 million of us in the United States will be diagnosed with this disease by the year 2040.

It is a problem that won’t be solved anytime soon. Unlike a specific infectious disease such as malaria, arthritis is actually a constellation of more than 100 separate, inflammatory ailments, each of which can produce pain, swelling and tenderness in one’s joints.

Our guide to this compelling and complex subject will be Dr. Emilio Gonzalez, who serves as both director and chief of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Division of Rheumatology. We begin by looking into the risk factors.

Q: What brings arthritis on?

A: The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA), and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Genetics would explain some of the propensity for getting either or both.
In addition, for OA, trauma, such as football and other intensive sports would explain the rest. For RA, other than genetics, the only modifiable risk factor is smoking. There is plenty of evidence to say that smokers get more RA, and earlier RA, than nonsmokers.

Q: What are the differences between osteo and rheumatoid arthritis?

A: OA usually affects certain knuckle joints, the base of the thumb, and the weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, hips and spine.
RA affects other hand joints, the wrists, the elbows and so on, following a joint pattern of distribution distinct from that of OA.
Also it is worth noting that OA is limited to local, if painful and potentially debilitating inflammation. The more pervasive rheumatoid can become what doctors call “systemic,” attacking non-joint tissues such as the lungs.

OA is typically called the “wear and tear” type of arthritis, and as such, it usually affects older people, whereas RA can affect anybody from children to the very old.

Gout is a third form of arthritis that is fairly common as well. When it comes to gout, watching your diet, consuming less red meat and alcohol is important.

Q: So if you find yourself awakening with morning stiffness as you slowly swing your legs out of bed, is there reason to worry?

A: Persistent pain and joint stiffness usually signals the presence of arthritis. However, if the symptoms are short-lived and improve if you stop the activity that brought it on, then it can reflect only the presence of tendinitis, that is, tennis elbow.

However, associated joint swelling supports more a diagnosis of true arthritis. The correct diagnosis is based on a good history, a physical examination, certain indicated laboratory tests and often a radiograph of the involved joint.

Next week: We’ll look at the treatment options available for at-home and in-clinic care as well as other diseases that can induce arthritis even in those with no family history of the condition, the critical importance of early diagnosis and some hope on the horizon for sufferers.

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.