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Facts About Arthritis

Back to 2003 Curriculum. 

What are the risks?


An important risk, which baby boomers may have trouble facing, is age. Arthritis often begins soon after age 40 after years of wear and tear on your joints.


In particular, women are at higher risk of many forms of arthritis than men. Here are the facts:

  • Osteoarthritis affects 21 million Americans, including 16 million women.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia are conditions that occur much more often in women than in men, although men have a higher risk of osteoarthritis after age 55 than women.
  • Researchers believe that female hormones may play some role in arthritis because women are affected so much more frequently than men. Hormones also appear to affect arthritis symptoms in certain cases. For instance, women frequently experience remission of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms during pregnancy, and lupus sometimes flares during pregnancy.


In addition to age and sex, other factors play a role in arthritis risk. People who are more than 10 pounds overweight have a higher risk for arthritis, especially in weight-bearing joints like the knees. Increased weight puts significantly more pressure on joints, causing cartilage, the cushioning layer between bones in a joint, to break down faster than usual.


A past severe knee injury, which also damages cartilage and leads to quicker breakdown, adds to arthritis risk.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is the oldest and most common forms of arthritis. In osteoarthritis, changes occur in both the cartilage and bone of joints that lead to joint pain, stiffness and swelling. OA also is known by many other names, such as degenerative joint disease. Risk factors for OA include being overweight, joint injury, muscle weakness, having other forms of arthritis, and heredity.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but it occurs most often in knees, hips, spine, small joints of the fingers, and the base of the thumb and big toe. It rarely affects other joints, except as a result of previous injury to the joint or unusual stress on the joint. Nearly 21 million people in the United States have osteoarthritis. Although OA affects millions of people, not everyone has joint symptoms because of it. Osteoarthritis can be a serious condition, but it is treatable - most people do get better with treatment. Getting a correct diagnosis and working with your doctor to design the best treatment plan is important.

What causes osteoarthritis? The cause of osteoarthritis is not known, but researchers have shown that there are several factors that increase your risk of developing OA. These factors include heredity, obesity, injury to the joint, repeated overuse of certain joints, muscle weakness, nerve injury, and aging. How can it be managed? A good treatment program can help you decrease joint pain and stiffness, improve joint movement and increase your ability to do everyday activities. A plan will be designed especially for you and should include a combination of physical and/or occupational therapy, exercise, weight control, patient education, and medication. When these measures do not help, surgery may be considered. Your treatment program will be based on how severe your disease is, which joints are affected, the nature of your symptoms and other medical problems. Your age, occupation and everyday activities also will be taken into consideration. You will work in partnership with your doctor and other health professionals, such as physical and occupational therapists, to make sure your program meets your needs.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

What is RA?  

Rheumatoid arthritis is a common form of arthritis (arth means joint, it means inflammation) that causes inflammation in the lining (synovium) of the joints and/or other internal organs. The joint lining thickens and may produce warmth, swelling (inflammation) and pain in the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to persist for many years, typically affects many different joints throughout the body and can cause damage to the cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments of the joints.

What causes RA?  

When the immune system works properly, it is the body's defense against bacteria, viruses and other foreign cells. In an immune disorder like RA, the immune system works improperly and attacks the body's own joints and other organs. In RA, white blood cells move from the bloodstream into the joint tissues. Fluid containing inflamed cells accumulates in the joint. The white cells in the joint tissue and fluid produce many substances, including enzymes, antibodies and other molecules (cytokines) that attack the joint and can cause damage.

How is RA treated?  

Right now, there is no cure for RA. Until the cause of RA is known, it may not be possible to eliminate the disease entirely. Current treatment methods focus on relieving pain, reducing inflammation, stopping or slowing joint damage, and improving patient function and well-being. Modern treatments have substantially improved the quality of life for people with RA. Your treatment program will be tailored to meet your needs, taking into account the severity of your arthritis, other medical conditions you may have, and your individual lifestyle.