When you think about arthritis, it’s very important to remember that it isn’t just one condition. In fact, there are more than 100 kinds of arthritis that can affect the joints in your body. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more than 27 million Americans. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is second most common, affecting more than 1.3 million Americans. There are similarities and differences between both of these two common kinds of arthritis, and very often both conditions have some amount of damage to the joints which causes stiffness, and also often leads to pain. As the number of people turning 65 increases (10,000 every single day), it’s reasonable to think that the number of people suffering from arthritis pain will increase as well. Keep in mind though that nearly 2/3 of people with arthritis are younger than age 65.
The bones in your body are the “frame” that supports you, and they are strong, just like the frame of a house or building. Unlike the frame of a house, which pretty much stays still while doing its job of support; your bones often move at the places where they make contact with each other. These places where the bones make contact and move are called joints. Joints then, are more like hinges on doors, always ready to move smoothly without roughness or “squeaks.”
When joints develop problems that affect smooth, gliding functioning, the stage is set for the joint to become “angry” or inflamed, resulting in pain, sometimes swelling, and stiffness. Sometimes the joints develop problems due to the “wear and tear” of many years of use, or even a previous injury to the joint – think “old high school football injury.” This would be the situation that describes osteoarthritis, which is why it is also sometimes called degenerative joint disease. It usually affects joints that bear the most of your body weight, such as the hips or knees, and sometimes is even limited to just a single joint.
When one of your joints has arthritis pain, it may be a little easier to deal with. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of “local” treatment, such as compresses, whirlpool baths, stretching, etc. Other times, it may be necessary to have physical therapy, use medications, and other kinds of treatments. It is possible that at some point, your healthcare provider may recommend consulting with an orthopedic surgeon to explore the value of replacing the joint with a new one – think “putting a new hinge on the door” (although it’s more complicated than that, of course). Whatever the solution is to treating pain in one or two joints, it very often can lead to a significant improvement in your quality of life, and can be dealt with in a relatively direct way.
Unfortunately, sometimes arthritis strikes more than one joint at a time. This may be due to wear and tear on many of the joints (osteoarthritis), due to rheumatoid arthritis (or other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis), or other reasons. Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects both the joints that bear your weight and also the ones that don’t, like your fingers and toes for example. Something else specific to rheumatoid arthritis is that it is thought to occur due to some activity by our own immune system, where it attacks the joints, making them angry and irritated. Unlike osteoarthritis, it happens in people who are younger, and commonly shows itself between the ages of 20-50.
Having more than one joint causing pain from arthritis is often much more difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s not possible to replace all of the joints that are affected. Second, some of the treatments may be different depending on the joints that hurt the most, and not necessarily easy to tackle at the same time. You can imagine that getting exercise for one painful joint may be very hard to do while the treatment for another might be rest. Third, for some reason, it just seems easier to deal with one place that hurts, than when many different places hurt. When more than one joint hurts, it can definitely wear you down, and affect the things you can and cannot do much more. For example, a cane may help bear some of the weight to ease the pain in a painful knee or hip. Image how hard it might be to use a cane when your arthritis pain in your arms, wrists and hands might sometimes be worse than the pain in that knee or hip.
So here are some important things to think about when more than one joint hurts from arthritis:
Don’t diagnose it yourself. There are many different things that may be causing the joint pain, and your healthcare provider should be involved with helping figure out what’s going on.
Do seek medical attention sooner rather than later. Many people develop pain in a few joints, chalk it up to getting old, and actually allow more damage to occur by ignoring the problem.
Don’t treat yourself for too long a period with over-the-counter medications if it seems like they are not helping, or stop helping the pain. Over-the-counter medications for arthritis pain often have risks associated with them if they are used for long periods of time or excessively. This means medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and even acetaminophen.
Do realize this – it’s extremely important to listen to your body. Depending on the type of arthritis you have, exercise may help the pain in one type, and worsen it with another.
When more than one joint hurts, it should be a signal to stop and try to come to a conclusion about whether or not there is a clear reason for the joint pain. If no clear reason presents itself, then seeking medical attention is important to help learn your own set of do’s and don’ts. This could make all the difference in the world to you and how the pain in those joints affects your life.
Battling joint pain is often just that; a battle. When more than one joint hurts you may need all the help you can get, so don’t go it alone.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Osteoarthritis. Retrieved 4/7/13, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00227
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Retrieved 4/7/13, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00211
Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis. Retrieved 12/13/2010, from http://www.arthritis.org/disease-center.php?disease_id=32
Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Retrieved 12/15/2010, from http://www.arthritis.org/disease-center.php?disease_id=31
Zacharoff, K.L., Menefee Pujol, L.A. &, Corsini, E. PainEDU.org Manual: A Pocket Guide to Pain Management (4th edition). Newton, MA: Inflexxion.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (July 2010.) Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis. Retrieved 4/7/13, from http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Osteoarthritis/default.asp
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (July 2010.) Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis. Retrieved 4/7/13, from http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Rheumatic_Disease/default.asp
The Global Burden of Disease : 2004 update. [Online-Ausg.] ed. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2008. ISBN 9789241563710. p. 35.