Understanding Arthritis

Arthritis is a term that is defined as inflammation of a joint and used to describe over 100 different conditions that can affect the human body. Arthritis affects millions of Americans each year with symptoms including pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of motion in affected joints.

As joint cartilage wears away, the bones begin to make painful bone-on-bone contact. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of joint pain. The early stages of osteoarthritis can be treated with a variety of conservative, non-surgical treatments. However, as the joint cartilage continues to wear away and the symptoms of osteoarthritis become more severe, the increased pain and limited movement can affect many everyday activities such as walking, driving, and sitting. Surgery may be recommended to correct the damaged bone and cartilage.

To diagnose your condition, an orthopedic surgeon will observe your movement and review your health history. An x-ray of the affected joint will show signs of cartilage wear, and the severity of the cartilage destruction can help determine the best course of treatment.

Often the cause of arthritis is unknown, but may develop as a result of injury to the joint, excess body weight, or years of wear and tear on the joint cartilage. There is no known cure. The best that doctors can do for patients is to restore motion and reduce pain. Fortunately, partial and total joint replacements have generally proven quite effective at accomplishing these goals.


The joints most commonly affected by osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, fingers, and shoulders. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include, but are not limited to:

  • Joint pain while standing or moving
  • Giving out or locking of joint
  • Near constant pain
  • Decreased activity
  • Abnormal stance or walk

The most common reason joints are replaced is osteoarthritis, which is the diagnosis in 90% of patients receiving a new joint. However, patients may be candidates for joint replacement if they suffer from any of the following conditions:

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of joint pain. Sometimes called degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, it is a condition that involves the breakdown of joint cartilage. Cartilage is a rubbery tissue that covers the ends of moving bones in joints. It acts as both a shock absorber and a lubricant, protecting your bones from damage and providing smooth, pain-free movement.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) This is significantly less common than osteoarthritis, affecting 2.1 million Americans, mostly women. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, the cause of which is unknown. The body’s immunological system attacks healthy tissue, causing inflammation of the joint lining and subsequent joint damage.

Avascular Necrosis (AVN) Also known as osteonecrosis, this is a disorder where the blood supply to the bone is compromised, causing weakness and potential bone collapse. Mostly occurring in people between the ages of 20 and 50, AVN most commonly affects alcoholics, people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus, and people ingesting high doses of steroids.

Post-Traumatic Arthritis (PTA) Injuries to the joint and cartilage which do not fully heal may lead to an arthritic condition.

Paget’s Disease A disorder whereby bone formation accelerates, creating changes in the shape and strength of the bone.

Descriptions provided by The Arthritis Foundation

A correct diagnosis is essential before starting treatment. Many patients with bone and joint pain assume they have arthritis. There are numerous causes of joint pain that are not related to arthritis. Your physician will use your history, examination, x-rays and possibly your blood work to determine if you have arthritis and, if so, what type of arthritis you have.

On an x-ray, a healthy joint appears as if there is a space between the bones in the joint. Although you cannot see the cartilage on an x-ray, in the healthy joint, the cartilage is working to cushion and smooth the movement of the joint. On the x-ray of a joint with osteoarthritis, there is bone on bone contact because the cartilage in the joint has worn away.

It is only after this that a treatment plan will be recommended. Always consult with a physician to obtain a correct diagnosis.

All patient education materials are provided by and have been reviewed by our Advisory Board of leading Orthopedic Surgeons to ensure accuracy. All materials are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for medical advice from your orthopedic surgeon. Any medical decisions should be made after consulting a qualified physician.
This site includes links to other web sites. takes no responsibility for the content or information contained in the linked sites.
Scroll Up