It is projected that within the next ten years, almost 67 million people in the US will be diagnosed with arthritis. That number is staggering, and a harsh reminder that we need to take steps to protect ourselves from this disease and the damage it can cause.
The easiest way to prevent arthritis, is to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. However, even some people who make an effort to do that may find themselves with the tell-tale joint pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. At the first sign of joint discomfort, it is important to see a doctor so he/she can examine your symptoms and attempt to make a diagnosis. With arthritis, the longer you go without treatment, the more damage your joints can incur.
The propensity to develop arthritis can be inherited, so after taking note of your symptoms, the doctor will likely ask about your family history. You can also expect a physical exam where you doctor will check affected joints, assess range of motion, and see if any joint damage has occurred. Joint pain is not always caused by arthritis, and may be a result of an injury or a job that requires a lot of physical labor or repetitive movements. However, if it is arthritis, it is important to find that out so your doctor can start a treatment plan for you.
To help make a diagnosis, your doctor may do a blood test to look for bacteria or viral infections, or do a urine test to look for certain levels of chemicals. Also, since it is hard to determine if there is joint damage, you will often be sent for x-rays, MRIs or CT scans that will produce images of the affected areas.
Armed with all of this information, your doctor will be able to make a correct diagnosis of your joint problems. If it is, in fact, arthritis, you can help manage the pain through over the counter medications such as NSAIDs (like ibuprofen), or anti inflammatory supplements. Your doctor may also write you a prescription for certain types of medications that can help reduce pain and inflammation. If you have arthritis caused by an autoimmune disorder, there is medication to help regulate your immune system.
Your doctor will also likely advise you to do daily exercises and stretching, and may send you to a physical therapist for a customized exercise program. Usually, walking, swimming, biking or jogging are safe exercises for people suffering from arthritis, but always ask your doctor or physical therapist who is familiar with your condition if these are safe for you.
In cases that have progressed too far without treatment, your only option will be surgery to repair or replace a damaged joint. This is very invasive and can have a long recovery time. The best way to avoid this is to get a diagnosis and start on treatment early, before your joint cartilage has completely deteriorated.