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Information for Patients & Caregivers

Understanding Arthritis

The two most common forms of arthritis, ‘joint inflammation’, are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, there are more than 100 rheumatoid diseases and conditions that can cause pain and discomfort to those affected.

arthritic hiphealthy hip joint

                   A Healthy Hip                                                                                    An Arthritic Hip

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of joint pain. Sometimes called degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, it is a condition that involves the breakdown of joint cartilage. Cartilage protects your bones from damage and provides smooth, pain-free movement.

As joint cartilage wears away, the bones begin to make painful bone-on-bone contact. The early stages of osteoarthritis can be treated with a variety of conservative, non-surgical treatments. However, as the joint cartilage continues to wear away and the symptoms of osteoarthritis become more severe, surgery may be recommended to correct the damaged bone and cartilage.

To diagnose your condition, an orthopaedic specialist will observe your movement and review your health history. An x-ray of the affected joint will show signs of cartilage wear and the severity of the cartilage destruction can help determine the best course of treatment.

The joints most commonly affected by osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, fingers, and shoulders. Osteoarthritis symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Joint pain while standing or moving
  • Giving out or locking of joint
  • Near constant pain
  • Decreased activity
  • Abnormal stance or walk

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This is significantly less common than osteoarthritis, affecting mostly women. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, the cause of which is unknown. The body’s immunological system attacks healthy tissue, causing inflammation of the joint lining and subsequent joint damage.

The joints that become inflamed include:

  • the synovial membrane
  • the tendons
  • the bags of fluid that allow muscles and tendons to move smoothly over one another (bursae)

Inflammation sometimes becomes far worse - known as a 'flare-up' - when the joints become warm as blood flow to the area increases. The synovial membrane produces extra fluid, causing swelling and a stretching of the ligaments around the joint. The result is a stiff, swollen and painful joint.

In one in five cases, rheumatoid arthritis develops very rapidly, but more often the symptoms develop over several months. For about one in twenty people with the disease, the cycles of inflammation cause severe damage in many joints, but others have little or no damage. Treating inflammation as quickly as possible is vital because once joint damage has occurred it can't be reversed.

How do I know if I have arthritis?

Many patients with bone and joint pain assume they have arthritis. There are numerous causes of joint pain, which are not related to arthritis. You should always get a proper diagnosis before attempting self-treatment.  

Why does it hurt so much?

As joint cartilage wears away, the bones begin to make painful bone-on-bone contact. The early stages of arthritis can be treated with a variety of non-surgical treatments. However, as the joint cartilage continues to wear away and the symptoms of arthritis become more severe, surgery may be recommended to correct the damaged bone and cartilage.