More than 46 million Americans have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis—a disease that affects 50 percent of adults over 65 and is the leading cause of disability in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But here's a lesser-known fact: The term "arthritis" is actually shorthand for more than 100 conditions that can affect your body's joints and tissues. For most sufferers, though, arthritis simply means joint inflammation, pain, and stiffness—symptoms that can develop either gradually or suddenly, according to experts.

The most common forms of arthritis are:

  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • gout
  • systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus
  • fibromyalgia


Osteoarthritis can affect the knees, hips, hands, and spine, and is characterized by degenerating cartilage and bone within a joint, as well as bony overgrowths. The breakdown eventually leads to pain and joint stiffness. This form of arthritis generally comes on gradually and usually begins after age 40.

There is currently no cure for osteoarthritis, which is treated by relieving symptoms and improving function with patient education, physical therapy, weight control, and medications. The specific causes of osteoarthritis are unknown, but doctors believe it may come from both mechanical and molecular events in the joints.

An estimated 26.9 million U.S. adults have osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis

An inflammatory disease that strikes multiple joints in the body, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) commonly results in pain, swelling, and redness and often leads to joint deformity. It can begin at any age and is associated with fatigue and prolonged stiffness after rest.

Although the causes of rheumatoid arthritis are unknown, the condition is believed to originate from a faulty immune response. There is currently no cure for RA, but with medications, surgery, and self-management, patients are often able to reduce pain and disability.

An estimated 1.3 million U.S. adults are affected by rheumatoid arthritis.


Gout develops when uric acid crystals build up in the body's tissues and fluids. Certain common medications, alcohol, and foods may contribute to the condition.

Acute gout is typically characterized by red, hot, and swollen joints with excruciating pain. These flare-ups respond well to oral anti-inflammatory medicines and may be prevented with medication and dietary changes. Recurrent bouts of acute gout could lead to a degenerative form of arthritis called gouty arthritis.

An estimated 3 million U.S. adults report having a doctor diagnosis of gout

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus)

Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system produces antibodies to cells, which leads to widespread inflammation and tissue damage. The condition, which may come and go, can affect the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels, leading to fatigue, pain or swelling in joints, skin rashes, and fever.

Although there's no one definitive cause, experts link the condition to genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors. Women are at far greater risk of developing the disease; nearly 9 out of 10 lupus patients are female.

An estimated 322,000 to over 1 million U.S. adults have lupus.


Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition associated with widespread muscular pains and fatigue. Researchers believe that genetics, as well as physical and emotional stress, contribute to its development.

As with lupus, women are at far greater risk of developing the disease; nearly 9 out of 10 fibromyalgia patients are female. With patient education, medication, exercise, and other therapies, sufferers can sometimes help thwart the condition.

An estimated 5 million U.S. adults have fibromyalgia.

Arthritis Risk Factors

As with any disease, certain risk factors are associated with arthritis. The non-modifiable ones (factors you can't change) include:


  • Age. The risk of developing most types of arthritis increases with age.
  • Gender. Sixty percent of the people with arthritis are women.
  • Genetics. Genes are linked with a higher risk of certain types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Modifiable risk factors (the ones you can control) include:

  • Weight problems. Excess weight can contribute to both the onset and progression of knee osteoarthritis. A loss of just 10 pounds can decrease the occurrence of the condition.
  • Joint injuries. Damage to a joint can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis in that joint.
  • Infection. Many microbial agents can infect joints and potentially cause the development of various forms of arthritis.
  • Occupation. Certain occupations involving repetitive knee bending and squatting are associated with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Treatment Options

The focus of treatment for arthritis is to control pain, minimize joint damage, and improve or maintain function and quality of life. According to the American College of Rheumatology, the treatment of arthritis might involve any or all of the following:


  • prescription medication
  • non-drug therapies
  • physical or occupational therapy
  • splints or joint-assistive aids
  • patient education and support
  • weight loss
  • surgery

Managing the Disease

In conjunction with medical treatment, self-management of arthritis symptoms is very important. According to the CDC's arthritis experts, becoming more active can help decrease pain, improve function, and delay disability. They suggest at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity three days a week.

An activity that produces a slight increase in heart rate or breathing, such as walking, swimming, or riding a bicycle, is considered moderate physical activity. Everyday activities such as dancing, gardening, and washing the car can also be helpful if conducted at a moderate pace that produces slight breathing and heart-rate changes. If your inflammatory arthritis flairs up, though, you may want to restrict your exercise to a simple range of motion, being careful to move the joint only as far as it can go.

If you have pain, stiffness, or swelling in or around one or more of your joints, talk to your doctor. An early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can often make a big difference when it comes to pain and joint damage.