This month is Arthritis Awareness Month with Aware being the operative word. The number of people affected by arthritis in America is shocking. Over 50 million adults and 300,000 children suffer from arthritis, and it is the leading cause of disability in our country. The one thing I know is that most of us either have firsthand experience with the disease or at least know someone who is affected by it. The mere fact that over 50 million of us have it means that there are a lot less than six degrees of separation from us and an arthritis sufferer (my apologies to Kevin Bacon). So . . . why should we be aware?
The first thing we should be aware of is that there are over 100 different types of arthritis, and the diagnosis and treatment may be different depending on the disease type. There are some common symptoms that we can look for to help us decide if we need to see a doctor. We’ll get into those in a minute. We do know that there are benefits in catching arthritis early. There are medicines and actions we can take to slow the onset of the disease and, in some cases, put it in remission. I think it’s important at this point to talk a little bit about remission. Many people who have arthritis define remission as the absence of pain or symptoms. Doctors, on the other hand, may not classify the disease the same way. They may see the continued presence of the disease and its continuing detrimental impacts on your body even with the absence of pain and not declare the disease as in remission. There are two things that this difference of opinion brings up. First, when I talk with people who suffer from arthritis, they say that if the pain was eliminated, they would call it remission because they feel that pain is the most debilitating part of arthritis. Second, we need to also listen to the doctor when they talk about not being done with arthritis just because the symptoms have stopped. Their advice and treatments are important, and we need to continue with the medicine or treatment that they prescribe. It’s always hard to stay vigilant against an unseen and non-painful enemy but it’s important to not let our guard down.
Ok, so now that we are aware of this disease that affects a lot of us, how do we recognize it and what do we do? As you might imagine the Arthritis Foundation has some great guidance on these two questions.
1. Pain – Pain from arthritis can be constant or it may come and go. It may occur when at rest or while moving. Pain may be in one part of the body or in many different parts.
2. Swelling – Some types of arthritis cause the skin over the affected joint to become red and swollen, feeling warm to the touch. Swelling that lasts for three days or longer or occurs more than three times a month should prompt a visit to the doctor.
3. Stiffness – This is a classic arthritis symptom, especially when waking up in the morning or after sitting at a desk or riding in a car for a long time. Morning stiffness that lasts longer than an hour is good reason to suspect arthritis.
4. Difficulty moving a joint – It shouldn’t be that hard or painful to get up from your favorite chair.
What do you do if you experience some of these symptoms?
Your experience with these symptoms will help your doctor pin down the type and extent of arthritis. Before visiting the doctor, keep track of your symptoms for a few weeks, noting what is swollen and stiff, when, for how long and what helps ease the symptoms. Be sure to note other types of symptoms, even if they seem unrelated, such as fatigue or rash. If you have a fever along with these symptoms, you may need to seek immediate medical care.
If the doctor suspects arthritis, they will perform physical tests to check the range of motion in your joints, asking you to move the joint back and forth. The doctor may also check passive range of motion by moving the joint for you. Any pain during a range of motion test is a possible symptom of arthritis. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and may order lab tests as needed.
Most people start with their primary care physician, but it’s possible to be referred to doctors who focus in treating arthritis and related conditions. Getting an accurate diagnosis is an important step to getting timely medical care for your condition.
It seems like I always have some story to tell about my own experience. I started having pain in my left index finger and a bump in my palm that hurt. I thought it was arthritis since it mirrored some of my wife’s symptoms who is suffering with arthritis in her fingers, but she urged me not to ignore my seemingly accurate self-diagnosis and see the doctor. Strange as it might seem, my diagnosis was wrong. It turned out to be trigger finger syndrome and I was able to take some ibuprofen and do some exercises and rest, and it went away. The point of this story is, look at the symptoms, track them and gather information as indicated above and see your doctor; they are the ones who can make the correct diagnosis and either treat you or get you to a specialist.
This a great month to become aware of the symptoms of arthritis and, if needed, do something about them. I hope May finds you in good health and good spirits.