Frequently Asked Questions—General Public
The word arthritis actually means joint inflammation, but the term has acquired a wider meaning. In public health, arthritis is used as a shorthand term for arthritis and other rheumatic conditions—a label for the more than 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions that affect joints, the tissues which surround joints and other connective tissue. The pattern, severity, and location of symptoms can vary depending on the specific form of the disease. Typically, rheumatic conditions are characterized by pain and stiffness in and around one or more joints. The symptoms can develop gradually or suddenly. Certain rheumatic conditions can also involve the immune system and various internal organs of the body.
The most common forms of arthritis are discussed in the Arthritis Types section. For a more detailed discussion of each of these conditions follow the links provided for you. The Resources section of our website can guide you to further information on many topics related to rheumatic diseases.
Certain factors are associated with a greater risk of arthritis. Some of these risk factors are modifiable while others are not.
Non-modifiable risk factors
- Age: The risk of developing most types of arthritis increases with age.
- Gender: Most types of arthritis are more common in women; 60% of the people with arthritis are women. Gout is more common in men.
- Genetic: Specific genes are associated with a higher risk of certain types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and ankylosing spondylitis.
Modifiable risk factors
- Overweight and Obesity: Excess weight can contribute to both the onset and progression of knee osteoarthritis.
- Joint Injuries: Damage to a joint can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis in that joint.
- Infection: Many microbial agents can infect joints and potentially cause the development of specific forms of arthritis.
- Occupation: Certain occupations involving repetitive knee bending and squatting are associated with osteoarthritis of the knee.
Elevated uric acid levels cause gout, and specific infections can cause certain forms of arthritis. For many forms of arthritis, the cause is unknown. Scientists are studying the role of factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and environment in the various types of arthritis
The most common form of arthritis in the Unites States is osteoarthritis followed by gout, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The pattern and location of symptoms can vary depending on the type of arthritis. Generally, people with arthritis feel pain and stiffness in and around one or more joints. The onset of arthritis symptoms can develop gradually or suddenly. Arthritis is most often a chronic disease, so symptoms may come and go, or persist over time.
If you have pain, stiffness, or swelling in or around one or more of your joints, talk to your doctor. It is important to keep in mind that there are many forms of arthritis, and a specific diagnosis of the type you have may help to direct the proper treatment. The earlier you understand your arthritis, the earlier you can start managing your disease and making healthy lifestyle changes to help your arthritis.
Depending on the form of arthritis, there are steps that can be taken to reduce your risk of arthritis. Maintaining an appropriate body weight has been shown to decrease the risk of developing osteoarthritis and gout. Protecting your joints from injuries or overuse can reduce the risk of osteoarthritis.
Diagnosing arthritis often requires a detailed medical history of current and past symptoms, physical examination, x-rays, and blood work. It is possible to have more than one form of arthritis at the same time.
The focus of treatment for arthritis is to control pain, minimize joint damage, and improve or maintain function and quality of life. In inflammatory types of arthritis, it is also important to control inflammation. According to the American College of Rheumatology, the treatment of arthritis might involve the following:
- Nonpharmacologic therapies
- Physical or occupational therapy
- Splints or joint assistive aids
- Patient education and support
- Weight loss
In conjunction with medical treatment, self-management of arthritis symptoms is very important as well. The Arthritis Self-Management Program and the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, both developed by Dr. Kate Lorig of Stanford University, are effective self-management education programs. These programs help people develop the confidence and skills needed to manage their arthritis on a day to day basis.
The Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program, the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program and Enhance Fitness® and Walk with Ease are all examples of programs designed to help people with arthritis increase their physical activity. For management of specific types of arthritis, refer to Arthritis Types .
- How can I manage arthritis pain?
Both medical treatment and self-management strategies are very important. The Arthritis Foundation Self Help Program and the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, both developed by Dr. Kate Lorig of Stanford University, are effective self-management education programs. These programs help people learn the techniques needed to manage their arthritis on a day to day basis and gain the confidence to carry it out.
Physical activity can also help reduce pain. Programs like Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program and Enhance Fitness® can help can help you safely increase yours physical activity.
- What does the CDC recommend for people with arthritis?
The CDC recommends the following:
Early diagnosis and appropriate management of arthritis, including self-management activities, can help people with arthritis decrease pain, improve function, stay productive, and lower health care costs. Key self-management activities include
- Learn arthritis management strategies.
- Be active.
- Watch your weight.
- See your doctor.
- Protect your joints.
Currently, an estimated 52.5 million US adults reported that their doctor told them they had arthritis. As our nation’s population ages, the prevalence is expected to increase.
CDC estimates that 294,000 U.S. children under age 18 (or 1 in 250 children) have been diagnosed with arthritis or another rheumatologic condition. (Type data table and state table.) Prior estimates ranged from 80,000 to 290,000, depending on the definition of arthritis, age range and methods used to find cases. However, many of these prior estimates were based on extrapolations from small studies done in small geographic areas which could have led to chance variation in estimates. More information.
Read about the program in the About Us section.
There are 12 states that have arthritis programs funded by the CDC. Read more about CDC- funded state arthritis programs.
Recent studies have shown that moderate physical activity 5 or more days a week can help to relieve arthritis pain and stiffness and give you more energy. Regular physical activity can also lift your mood and make you feel more positive.
An activity that produces a slight increase in heart rate or breathing is considered moderate physical activity. Low-impact activities performed at a moderate pace work best for people with arthritis. These include walking, swimming, and riding a bicycle. Everyday activities such as dancing, gardening, and washing the car can be good if done at a moderate pace that produces slight increase in breathing and heart rate. Detailed information about physical activity for people with arthritis and recommended programs are available.
If you are having an acute flare-up of your inflammatory arthritis, it may be better to restrict your exercise to simple range of motion (carefully moving the joint as far as it can go) during the flare-up.
More information is available.
Physical Activity and Arthritis – Detailed Overview
Physical Activity and Arthritis – Two Page Fact Sheet
What should I do if I have pain when I exercise?
It’s normal for people with arthritis to experience some soreness or aching in joints and surrounding muscles during and after exercise. This is especially true in the first 4 to 6 weeks of starting an exercise program. However, most people with arthritis find if they stick with exercise they will have significant long-term pain relief. Here are some tips to help you manage pain during and after exercise:
- Modify your exercise program by reducing the frequency (days per week) or duration (amount of time each session) until pain improves.
- Change the type of exercise to reduce impact on the joints – for example switch from walking to water aerobics.
- Do proper warm-up and cool-down before and after exercise.
- Exercise at a comfortable pace – you should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising.
- Make sure you have good fitting, comfortable shoes.
Signs you should see your health care provider:
- Pain is sharp, stabbing, and constant.
- Pain that causes you to limp.
- Pain that lasts more than 2 hours after exercise or gets worse at night.
- Pain is not relieved by rest, medication, or hot/cold packs.
- Large increases in swelling or your joints feel “hot” or are red.
Weight control is essential; research suggests that maintaining a healthy weight reduces the risk of developing osteoarthritis and may decrease disease progression. A loss of just 11 pounds can decrease the occurrence (incidence) of new knee osteoarthritis, and losing just 5% of body weight (12 pounds in a 250 pound person) can reduce pain and disability. Calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI). Read more about healthy weight.
People with certain forms of arthritis (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis and lupus) may have weakened immune systems, due either to the disease and/or the medications (e.g., prednisone) they take to treat the condition. This may make them more susceptible to flu-related complications after being infected. More detailed information and guidance regarding the flu is available.