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Baylor College of Medicine News

Know the facts on arthritis

For the millions of people in the United States who suffer from some form of arthritis, management of the disease is the key to maintaining quality of life, according to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

"Because many times patients are in so much pain that they can’t work because of their arthritis, it has a high impact on cost in terms of lost time at work," said Dr. Melvyn Harrington, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at BCM.

Harrington explains that when someone has arthritis, or degenerative joint disease, they lose the cartilage in their joint. Cartilage allows cushioning and pain free motion, so for someone with arthritis, the joint is worn out, causing pain and limited function.

There are various types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which there is inflammation in the joints that destroys the joints.

Juvenile arthritis affects children and is typically an autoimmune, inflammatory arthritis.

The most common cause of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which affects about 80 percent of people over the age of 50. Although the exact cause of osteoarthritis is not known, there are several factors that are known to put someone at risk of getting it.

"We know that genetics plays a role, so it tends to run in families. We know that obesity is a factor for worsening the arthritis, particularly in the lower extremities. We know that if you injure the joint, such as torn cartilage or a fracture to the joint, that can predispose arthritis," said Harrington.

Symptoms of arthritis include hip, knee or other joint pain, and it is diagnosed by looking at a patient’s history, performing a physical exam and taking x-rays.

Although it’s not a reversible condition, arthritis is manageable with medications. For the inflammatory arthritis conditions, there has recently been great progress in being able to treat them through new medications.

For osteoarthritis, treatment consists of managing the symptoms. This includes starting with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, protecting the joints and physical therapy.

"By far, the most important thing in treating arthritis is weight loss. For every pound that you see on the scale, your knee carries three or four times that weight. Every little bit of weight loss helps, especially for arthritis in the lower extremities," said Harrington.

Harrington also notes that new research has shown that excess body fat can produce chemicals that can cause more generalized pain and joint damage.

He also notes that physicians are starting to see osteoarthritis in younger patients who are overweight, as early as late 30s or early 40s. Osteoarthritis at a younger age is a bigger challenge in terms of managing and treating conditions. There are few surgical options, such as knee replacements, that will last the rest of the patient’s life and they may require multiple surgeries down the road.

Recent estimates predict that about 27 million people in the United States have osteoarthritis. Harrington has made it a personal goal to get the word out about arthritis so that people are aware of the impact it can have on their lives. This year, Harrington serves as the Medical Honoree for the Houston Arthritis Walk, in association with the Arthritis Foundation. Join Harrington and the Arthritis Foundation on June 1 at the Quillian Center, 10570 Westpark Drive, for a one- or three-mile walk. For more information, visit the Arthritis Walk website.

To join Harrington’s team, the BCM Walkin’ Warriors, visit the team page