There’s a pretty good chance that if you don’t suffer from arthritis yourself, someone close to you does. One in five Canadians live with arthritis: according to the Arthritis Society, it is Canada’s most common chronic health condition for which there is no cure.
Arthritis is a general umbrella term that refers to a group of more than 100 diseases, but they are all characterized by essentially the same thing: Inflammation in the joints and other connective tissue that leads to pain and stiffness.
Arthritis can affect anyone, at any age. If you have it, you have it for life.
That big group of more than 100 diseases can also be broken down into two broad categories: osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and affects more Canadians than all other forms of arthritis combined.
Formerly thought of as simply the result of wear and tear as we age, Osteoarthritis Research Society International (ORSI) has defined the condition as the body’s inability to repair damaged joint tissue — though it does involve the wearing away of tissue and cartilage in the affected area.
“Early in the disease process, the body has resources to repair detrimental changes within an OA joint,” reads the ORSI website, “As the disease progresses, the body’s repair system can no longer keep up with these processes, resulting in the tissue damage that is called osteoarthritis.”
According to the ORSI, the breakdown of that tissue within the joints can eventually lead to bones on either side of the joint rubbing together, causing bone spurs, swelling, pain and limited mobility.
Most commonly affecting the knees, hips, hands, feet or spine, osteoarthritis is more common in women, and there are several risk factors involved that can raise your likelihood of developing it, such as family history and obesity.
Osteoarthritis is far more common in people over 50, but it can develop as the result of an injury at any age.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis vary greatly from person to person, and the ORSI states that x-rays of an affected area may not always correspond to the level of pain or discomfort the patient may be experiencing. In some instances, severe structural changes to the joint may not even result in much pain.
Inflammatory arthritis (IA)
Inflammatory arthritis encompasses all other types of arthritis. These types of arthritis are caused by inflammation of the joint, rather than a breakdown of the joint’s cartilage.
Another key difference between the two types of arthritis is that most forms of IA are also auto-immune diseases. This is the case with the most common form of IA: rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system begins to mistakenly attack healthy tissue – causing inflammation, joint pain and limited mobility.
According to the Arthritis Society, RA can start in just a couple joints and spread quickly to other parts of the body if not treated or caught early enough. In some cases the inflammation resulting from RA can affect the eyes, lungs, heart or nerves.
As with osteoarthritis, risk factors associated with the development of RA can include sex (it’s more common in women), age (more common in older people), family history and hormonal changes. Smoking is also a common risk factor associated with more severe cases of RA.
As RA can affect many parts of the body including several organs, symptoms greatly vary from case to case. But joint pain, swelling and stiffness are some common early symptoms of RA development.
It may take a considerable amount of time, lab tests, blood tests or visits with a rheumatologist to receive an RA diagnosis as the symptoms overlap with many other diseases.
Though there is no cure for RA either, there are several effective pharmacological treatments.
Other forms of inflammatory arthritis
There are more than 100 forms of inflammatory arthritis. Lupus and gout are two commonly known diseases that actually fall under the IA umbrella, as do other common diseases such as:
- Rheumatoid ankylosing spondylitis (affects the spine)
- Psoriatic arthritis (typically occurs in the fingers)
- Juvenile arthritis (affects young people)
- Infectious arthritis (occurs as the result of an infection)
For all kinds of arthritis, treatment is much more effective if the condition is caught early. Here is a list of the different forms.
Visit the Arthritis Society for more information on support and advocacy.