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11:23 AM Wed, Sept. 19th

Feeling out-of-joint? Treating the aches of arthritis

More than 40 million Americans suffer from some type of arthritis, making it one of the most common medical problems in America.

Types of Arthritis

The three most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

Osteoarthritis (OA) affects nearly 21 million people in the United States. It is characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage, usually in the hands and large, weight-bearing joints like knees and hips. OA can cause stiffness and joint pain as well as decreased range of motion.

OA can be caused by joint injury or overuse. Women have a higher risk of developing the disease, as do people who are overweight, those over age 45 and those with certain hereditary conditions.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory condition that causes pain and swelling in joints. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovium, the tissue that lines the joint, and causes inflammation that damages bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons. Eventually, the joint loses shape and alignment.

More than 2 million Americans are affected, and the disease is more common among women. Other risk factors include heredity, smoking and exposure to an infection. The disease generally strikes at a younger age than OA.

Gout is a painful disease caused by deposits of uric acid in the connective tissue and joint spaces. It causes swelling, redness, pain and stiffness in the joints, usually in the feet. Men are more prone to the disease than are women. Excessive alcohol consumption and certain medical problems, such as untreated high blood pressure, can increase risk of developing gout. However, after menopause women may develop gout in equal proportion to men.

Prevention and Care

There is no treatment to cure arthritis. Joint replacements may be done to help OA sufferers. Pain medications may alleviate symptoms, and immunosuppressant drugs can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. And although there are some factors for arthritis that are uncontrollable, like age and heredity, you can control the following to help prevent the onset of arthritis.

• Maintain a healthy weight. This can ease pressure on your joints, minimizing your risk for developing osteoarthritis.

• Do strengthening exercises. Strong muscles help support joints. Talk to your physician before beginning any exercise program.

• Stop smoking. Those who smoke are at a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

If you already suffer from arthritis, exercise can help you manage symptoms. Range-of-motion exercises can help maintain joint movement and relieve stiffness.

Aerobic activities such as walking or biking can improve your cardiovascular health and help you control your weight.

In addition to exercise, get plenty of sleep and follow your treatment plan. Take anti-inflammatory medications, or other medications prescribed by your doctor, and exercise regularly. Skipping treatment recommendations can backfire and lead to increased symptoms.

You don't have to let arthritis slow you down. A healthy lifestyle can help protect against arthritis and help manage symptoms if you already have it.

• Source: Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritis.org.

It Is the Weather

Researchers have finally documented what arthritis sufferers have claimed for years. There is a correlation between weather patterns - specifically changes in barometric pressure and cooler temperatures - and arthritis pain.

Scientists examined two sets of data, one on weather reports and one on arthritis sufferers' pain records. When they matched the appropriate ZIP code to the patient, they found a correlation between changes in barometric pressure and increased knee pain. Cooler temperatures appeared to contribute to more pain as well. Rainfall and dew points, however, had no significant association.

Source: The National Women's Health Information Center, www.4women.gov.