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A Look At Arthritis: America's Leading Cause of Disability

The word arthritis literally means joint inflammation, but it is often used to refer to a group of more than 100 rheumatic diseases that cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints. The most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout. Most forms of arthritis are associated with pain that can be divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute pain is temporary. It can last a few seconds or a few minutes but diminishes as healing occurs. Acute pain is associated with burns, cuts and fractures. Chronic pain, such as that felt by people with arthritis, ranges from mild to severe and can last days, months, years or even a lifetime.

Osteoarthritis is one of the most frequent causes of physical disability among adults. More than 20 million people in the United States, alone, have the disease. By 2030, according the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 20 percent of all Americans--about 70 million people--will have passed their 65th birthday and will be at a higher risk of osteoarthritis.

Arthritis limits the everyday activity of 8 million Americans, and this disability creates huge burdens for the individuals, their families, and the nation as a whole. Each year, arthritis results in 9,500 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Control, in 1997, medical care for arthritis (in the U.S.) was $51 billion.

This disease affects each person quite differently. In some people it progresses quickly and in others the symptoms are much more serious and painful. Medical practitioners do not yet know what causes arthritis, but they suspect a combination of factors including: being overweight, the aging process, family history, joint injury, and stresses on the joints from work or sporting activities.

There is no single treatment that applies to everyone who suffers from arthritis. With your personal input, a medical specialist will develop a management and treatment plan designed to minimize your specific pain and improve the function of your joints. A number of treatments can provide short-term relief. They include: medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, the use of hot and cold packs, using a splint or a brace to protect painful joints, or perhaps using muscle-relaxing massages.

In the long-term, pain relief may be found with: new drugs, called biological response modifiers, which reduce inflammation in the joints; corticosteroids such as Prednisone; weight reduction; dietary changes; exercise (swimming, walking and low-impact aerobic exercise); and even surgery to replace a joint that has badly deteriorated. In some instances, nutritional supplements may be helpful.

The long-term goal of pain management is to help you cope with this chronic, often disabling disease. You may be caught in a cycle of pain, depression, and stress. To break this cycle, you need to be an active participant in managing your pain. The role you play in planning your treatment is very important. You and your health care providers must work together closely to develop a personalized and effective treatment program. Research has shown that patients who are well informed and participate actively in their own care, experience less pain, make fewer visits to the doctor and lead a much more enjoyable life.

About the Author

Larry Denton is a retired history teacher having taught 33 years at Hobson High in Hobson, Montana. He is currently Vice President of Elfin Enterprises, Inc. a business dedicated to providing information and resources on a variety of topics. For an therapy room full of information and valuable resources to assist you in dealing with arthritis, visit


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