Arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are characterized by pain, swelling, and limited movement in joints and connective tissues in the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 million people in the US have some form of arthritis or chronic joint symptoms.
Arthritis, which literally means inflammation of a joint (where two or more bones meet), actually refers to more than 100 different diseases. Rheumatic diseases include any diseases that cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints or other supportive body structures, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.
Arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are often mistakenly associated with old age, because osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) occurs more often among elderly persons. However, arthritis and other rheumatic diseases affect people of all ages.
Arthritis is usually chronic, which means that it rarely changes, or it progresses slowly. Specific causes for most forms of arthritis are not yet known.
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Joints are the areas where two bones meet. Most joints are mobile, allowing the bones to move. Joints consist of the following:
- Cartilage - a type of tissue that covers the surface of a bone at a joint. Cartilage helps reduce the friction of movement. within a joint
- Synovial membrane - a tissue called the synovial membrane lines the joint. The synovial membrane secretes synovial fluid (a clear, sticky fluid) around the joint to lubricate it.
- Ligaments - strong ligaments (tough, elastic bands of connective tissue) surround the joint to give support and limit the joint's movement.
- Tendons - tendons (another type of tough connective tissue) on each side of a joint attach to muscles that control movement of the joint.
- Bursas - fluid-filled sacs, called bursas, between bones, ligaments, or other adjacent structures help cushion the friction in a joint.
- Femur - the thighbone.
- Tibia - the shin bone.
- Patella - the kneecap.
- Meniscus - a curved part of cartilage in the knees.
The three most prevalent forms of arthritis include the following:
The following are the most common symptoms of arthritis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Pain and stiffness in the joints
- Swelling in one or more joints
- Continuing or recurring pain or tenderness in a joint
- Difficulty using or moving a joint in a normal manner
- Warmth and redness in a joint
The symptoms of arthritis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for arthritis may include the following:
- X-rays or other imaging procedures (to show the extent of damage to the joint)
- Blood tests and other laboratory tests, including the following:
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test (to check levels of antibodies in the blood)
- Arthrocentesis or joint aspiration (to remove a sample of the synovial fluid to determine if crystals, bacteria, or viruses are present)
- Complete blood count (to determine if white blood cell, red blood cell, and platelet levels are normal)
- Creatinine (to monitor for underlying kidney disease)
- Sedimentation rate (to detect inflammation)
- Hematocrit (to measure the number of red blood cells)
- Rheumatoid factor test (to determine if rheumatoid factor is present in the blood)
- Urinalysis (to determine levels of protein, red blood cells, white blood cells, and casts)
- White blood cell count (to determine level of white blood cells in the blood)