arthritis-woman's-hands-[400x600]May is National Arthritis Awareness Month, sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis is the number one cause of disability in America, and people often think that arthritis just comes naturally with old age—but that’s not true. Arthritis is an inflammatory disease, not an inevitable part of aging.

Osteoarthritis (OA) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) affect millions of Americans. Here is some basic information, from the Arthritis Foundation website, on the differences between these two forms of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis

Almost 27 million Americans suffer from this most common form of arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation explains, “OA occurs when parts of a joint, including cartilage, bones, fluid or its membrane lining, change and break down, usually over years. Cartilage and joint fluid cushion and lubricate a joint, easing the motion of bones. When these joint components break down, movement becomes difficult or painful.” In advanced stages of OA, there is nothing to cushion the bones, so they rub together and cause excruciating pain, limiting movement.

There is no cure, but there are some steps you can take to relieve your arthritis symptoms and medication to ease the pain. Before arthritis symptoms begin to appear, be aware of the following factors that could add stress to your joints and make you at risk of developing arthritis:

Injury

Previous injuries play a large role in whether or not you will develop post-traumatic osteoarthritis. Severe injuries (from car accidents, sports, bad falls, etc.) can affect your joints and make them more susceptible to arthritis. Arthritis Today magazine reports that “10-20 years after a traumatic injury to the knee, 50% of patients will develop OA.” This happens because as the body works to heal the injured area, several natural reactions occur that cause the joints in the affected area to break down much faster. If you’ve had a severe injury in the past (and who hasn’t?), pay attention to the other factors that contribute to OA and stay as healthy and mobile as you can.

Obesity

Extra weight on your body leads to extra weight on your joints—and this causes joints to break down faster. In addition, fatty tissues in the body secrete chemicals and hormones that cause inflammation that affects your joints. So in many ways, those extra pounds on your body can lead to a lot of stress on your joints and arthritis pain in the future. Maintaining a healthy weight will relieve stress on your joints.

Alignment

Even if you are a normal, healthy weight, if the bones and joints in your body are out of alignment, this adds additional weight and stress on your joints, raising your risk of developing OA. For those who are overweight and have misaligned bones in the body, this further increases the weight on the joints and the speed at which they break down. Work closely with your doctor, physical therapist or chiropractor to keep your body aligned and healthy.

Age

Aging does take its toll on joints, especially when combined with the factors listed above. We can’t do anything to stop from growing older, but we can be aware of the factors that contribute to joint damage and work to remain as healthy and active as possible.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic immune disease that affects 1.5 million Americans, and women are three times more likely to have RA than men. Doctors don’t know what causes it, though they suspect certain environmental and genetic factors, such as hormones and stress.

RA affects the joints, just like OA, but it is caused by the immune system attacking the healthy cells and breaking down the joints. RA causes painful flare ups in the joints, and people with RA often have achy, flu-like symptoms along with painful joints and difficulty with movement. Unlike OA, which can just affect one hip or one wrist, RA is symmetrical, which means both sides of your body are affected, both hips, both wrists, etc. RA affects the joints, but can also move on to affect the bodies’ major organs.

There is no cure for RA, but doctors say the best treatment is early intervention, before RA causes any irreversible damage. Doctors try to use a regimen of medication and treatment to slow the effects of RA or even send it into remission.

If you are one of the millions of Americans with arthritis, be proactive, work closely with your doctor and do all you can to stay healthy and pain free. Visit our blog next week for tips on managing arthritis pain. If you think you might have arthritis or are worried about your risks of developing the disease, talk to your doctor about what you can do to relieve stress on your joints and remain agile and active.