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Arthritis can be distracting. Distressing. And disheartening. It can make you hesitant. It can frustrate — and even prevent — you from doing all the things you love to do. It is, quite literally, a pain. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis. The most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
The good news is that you can live — and live well — with arthritis. You can get relief from its pain and its consequences. One of the best and effective ways to combat arthritis pain is simple: exercise. Regular exercise not only helps maintain joint function, but also relieves stiffness and decreases pain and fatigue. Other ways to ease arthritis pain include medications, physical therapy, joint replacement surgery, and some alternative or complementary procedures.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It starts with the deterioration of cartilage, the flexible tissue lining joints. The space between bones gradually narrows and the bone surfaces change shape. Over time, this leads to joint damage and pain. The symptoms of osteoarthritis usually develop over many years. The first sign is often joint pain after strenuous activity or overusing a joint. Joints may be stiff in the morning, but loosen up after a few minutes of movement. Or the joint may be mildly tender, and movement may cause a crackling or grating sensation.
Osteoarthritis was long considered a natural consequence of aging, the result of gradual wearing down of cartilage. The cause of osteoarthritis is much more complex than simple wear and tear. External factors, such as injuries, can initiate chronic cartilage breakdown. Inactivity and excess weight can also trigger the problem or make it worse. Genetic factors can affect how quickly it gets worse.
There is currently no cure for osteoarthritis. But there are effective treatments that can greatly improve a person's quality of life by relieving pain, protecting joints, and increasing range of motion in the affected joint. Therapy usually involves a combination of nondrug treatments such as heat, ice, and exercise; medication for pain and inflammation; and the use of assistive devices such as canes or walkers. In some cases, more aggressive treatment with surgery or joint replacement may be needed.
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Robert H. Shmerling, MD