Arthritis, by definition, is an inflammation of one or more joints, but there are many different types of arthritis. Here, we try to explain what the differences are.

Most cases of arthritis fall into one of two main categories: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The symptoms and effects of this conditions, however, are not the same.

Osteoarthritis — the most common form of arthritis — is either caused by the normal wear and tear on a joint that accompanies old age, or it is caused by overuse of a certain joint. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the gradual loss of cartilage in the joint. Cartilage is the material that covers bones, cushioning them and absorbing shock during everyday activities.

As a person ages, he or she becomes more susceptible to different types of arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis, as everyone’s joints will suffer gradual cartilage loss. In some cases, the overuse of a particular joint may speed up this process. For example, athletes sometimes use certain joints over and over and over, demanding a lot from their bodies.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the other most common form of arthritis, but it occurs in a manner that is very different from osteoarthritis. With rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system begins to reject the membrane that encases a joint. As a result, the membrane becomes inflamed, tender and swollen. If untreated, the rheumatoid arthritis will lead to the eventual death of cartilage and bone in the joint.

Symptoms of both types of arthritis include pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, swelling around the joint, and redness.

Treatment for arthritis will usually involve a combination of medications and other therapies prescribed by the doctor, as well as at-home effort and lifestyle changes.

Typical arthritis medications include analgesics, NSAIDs, corticosteroids and counterirritants (such as a capsaicin cream). Some patients may also benefit from physical therapy, which can strengthen the muscles and other tissues surrounding the joint.

As a last resort, joint replacement or joint fusion may be considered. Usually, replacement is an option for types of arthritis that affect a large joint, such as a knee; whereas, joint fusion is an option for smaller joints, like the wrist or fingers.

For those suffering from on of these types of arthritis, at-home lifestyle changes can be just as important as the medications the doctor prescribes. Exercising regularly, and using heat and cold therapy regularly, and losing weight are all things that can be accomplished at home that can do a lot in the way of strengthening, rehabilitating and alleviating the burden for joints, leading to an overall reduction in chronic pain resulting from arthritis.

Image via IntangibleArts on Flickr