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What is arthritis?

Arthritis is pain and stiffness of your joints. Sometimes you may have redness, swelling, and warmth around painful joints. In severe cases, the shape of your joints may change.

The 2 most common kinds of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Osteoarthritis is a disease in which the cartilage in your joints breaks down. Cartilage is the cushion that covers the ends of bones and allows free movement of joints. If cartilage gets rough or wears away, the roughened cartilage or bone surfaces grind against each other. The joint gets irritated and swollen (inflamed). Sometimes the irritation causes abnormal bone growths, called spurs. Osteoarthritis normally affects the feet, knees, neck, lower back, hips, and fingers. Symptoms of the disease often start to appear by middle age.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease that affects the lining of your joints. It’s an autoimmune disease, which means that your body's defenses against infection attack your body's own tissue. Rheumatoid arthritis causes redness, swelling, stiffness, and changes in the shape of your joints. It usually affects the wrists, knuckles, knees, and feet. It usually starts in early adulthood or middle age.

There are many other forms of arthritis that are less common, such as:

  • Gout, which is caused by too much uric acid in your body. Gout most often affects the toes and other joints of the foot and leg.
  • Arthritis that happens after an injury or with some infections, such as Lyme disease

What is the cause?

Arthritis can have many causes. You may inherit genes for osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis from your parents. Genes are inside each cell of your body and are passed from parents to children. They contain the information that tells your body how to develop and work.

Things that may cause or contribute to arthritis are:

  • Aging
  • Heavy lifting or contact sports that put pressure on joints and damage the cartilage
  • Too much wear on joints. Obesity, bad posture, and overuse can all cause extra wear on joints.
  • Infection
  • Injury
  • Hormones changes, as in menopause
  • Smoking
  • Long-term exposure to silica or asbestos

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms depend on the type of arthritis you have. Symptoms may include:

  • Mild to severe pain in your joints
  • Red, warm, or swollen joints
  • Joint stiffness
  • Changes in the shape of your joints

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Joint aspiration, which uses a needle to take fluid from a joint for testing
  • X-rays

You may have other tests or scans to check for other possible causes of your symptoms.

How is it treated?

There are many ways to treat arthritis. The goals of treatment are to:

  • Relieve pain and stiffness
  • Reduce swelling
  • Stop or slow down damage to your joints
  • Keep your joints working properly


Several kinds of medicines may be used, such as:

  • Prescription pain medicines or nonprescription pain medicine
  • Medicine patches put on painful joints
  • Steroids or other medicine injected into a painful joint
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to help slow joint damage if you have rheumatoid arthritis


Three types of exercise are best for people with arthritis:

  • Range-of-motion exercises are gentle stretching exercises that help you move each joint as far as possible. Examples include low-speed bike riding, tai chi, and yoga. Range-of-motion exercises help you keep or improve your flexibility and relieve stiffness.
  • Strengthening exercise, such as weight training, makes muscles and tendons stronger. Strong muscles and tendons support joints better. You will be able to move more easily and with less pain.
  • Aerobic or endurance exercise at a moderate pace, such as walking or bicycle riding, improves your overall health and helps control your weight.

Talk with your healthcare provider before you start an exercise program. Too much exercise too soon or even at the wrong time of day may make arthritis worse. Your provider may refer you to a physical therapist to design a program that is right for you.


Your provider may advise arthroscopy, which is a type of surgery done with a small scope inserted into your joint. Your provider can look directly at your joint and repair it without having to cut open the joint.

If you have a joint that is severely damaged, your provider may recommend a joint replacement.

Other treatments

  • Your healthcare provider may recommend physical or occupational therapy to treat pain and help you have better use of your joints.
  • Your provider may suggest using heat or cold therapy, depending on the type of arthritis you have.
  • Sometimes it may help to use a splint or brace to rest a joint and protect it from injury.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may relieve some types of arthritis pain. TENS directs mild electric pulses through the skin to nerves in the painful area.
  • Acupuncture and massage are other possible treatments.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Rest your joints when they are warm, swollen, or painful.
  • Learn how to move in ways that are easier on your joints. Be open to using devices to help you. These devices include canes and walkers; bath seats and grab bars for the bathtub; and larger grips on tools, utensils, pens, and pencils. Velcro fasteners on clothes and shoes are very useful, too.
  • Join a support group or take classes on how to manage your arthritis.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what you need in a healthy diet.
  • Try to keep a healthy weight. If you are overweight, lose weight. Losing some weight can lower the stress on your joints.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.
  • Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to normal activities
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

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Published by RelayHealth.
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