Everyone is familiar with arthritis.  But few really understand it.

Arthritis is not a single disease.  It is an informal way to refer to joint pain or joint disease.  The term is so wide-ranging that the Arthritis Foundation says it actually refers to more than 100 types of conditions.

Arthritis is the most frequent cause of disability the United States. More than 20 million individuals with arthritis have severe limitations in function on a daily basis. Frequent visits to the physician are common in individuals who have arthritis. Arthritis can make it exceedingly difficult for individuals to be physically active and some become home bound.

The most common forms of arthritis include osteoarthritis which is a degenerative joint disease and usually occurs with age and affects the fingers, knees, and hips.  Rheumatoid arthritis is also common and is an autoimmune disorder that often affects the hands and feet.  Other types of arthritis include gout, lupus, fibromyalgia, and septic arthritis which are all types of rheumatic disease.

As many conditions as there are, they fall into four typical warning signs, regardless of which type of arthritis a person may have.

Pain. Arthritis pain may be constant or intermittent.  Arthritis-related pain is not always triggered by an activity that incorporates the part of the body that experiences discomfort.  Arthritis pain can occur while the body is at total rest.  And, pain from arthritis can impact several areas of the body simultaneously or be concentrated in a single area.

Swelling. Anyone who experiences swelling for longer than three days should seek help from a physician.  Skin over the joints affected by arthritis can become red and swollen.  It can be warm to the touch. 

Stiffness.  Stiffness in addition to pain is the most common experience with arthritis.  Even those who don’t have arthritis incorrectly associate stiffness with the condition.  Nevertheless, stiffness after long sedentary periods such as sitting in one place or riding in a car for a long time can be symptoms of arthritis.  This is more likely true of the stiffness lasts longer than an hour.

Joint Flexibility.  People who have trouble moving, such as getting out of bed, may have some form of arthritis.  Joints should move freely and without pain in normal activities of daily life.

Decreased mobility, in combination with the above symptoms, can make it difficult for an individual to remain physically active, contributing to an increased risk of obesity, high  cholesterol or vulnerability to heart disease People with arthritis are also at increased risk of depression which may be a response to numerous factors, including fear of worsening symptoms.

People who recognize any of the warning signs listed above should report them to their doctors as soon as possible.  By being as specific as possible, patients can greatly assist their physicians in coming up with the most effective course of treatment.