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What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is often thought to be a single disease, but is actually an umbrella term for more than 100 medical conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, specifically joints where two or more bones meet.

Arthritis-related symptoms include stiffness and pain, caused by inflammation and damage to joint cartilage and surrounding structures. This may result in joint weakness, instability and deformities that interfere with basic daily tasks.

Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout are three forms of arthritis that account for the majority of cases in Australia. Arthritis is the major cause of chronic pain and disability in the country, with over 3.9 million Australians affected.

There is a widely held belief that arthritis is a consequence of age, but it is not always associated with the ageing process. In fact, two out of every three people with arthritis are between 16 and 60 years old.

Research suggests early intervention can delay the onset of arthritis.

Symptoms of arthritis

Arthritis affects people in different ways, and each type has specific symptoms. Common symptoms across the main types include:

  • pain
  • redness and warmth in a joint
  • stiffness or reduced movement in a joint
  • swelling in a joint.

These symptoms are sometimes called ‘rheumatism.’ Rheumatism isn’t a disorder, but the term is often used to describe any sort of joint or muscle pain.

Causes of arthritis

Some forms of arthritis are caused by a reduction in the normal amount of cartilage tissue. Osteoarthritis, for instance, results from the joint working hard to repair itself, but can be exacerbated by an infection or injury to the joints. You’re also at higher risk if you have a family history of the disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks your body’s tissues. This affects the synovium, which secretes a fluid that nourishes cartilage and lubricates joints, and can lead to the destruction of both bone and cartilage inside the joint. The exact cause of the immune system’s attacks is not yet understood, but scientists have discovered genetic markers that increase the risk of developing the disease.

Diagnosis and treatment of arthritis

As there are so many different types of arthritis, it is important to seek a diagnosis if displaying symptoms. Treatment, particularly medication, can differ greatly between different forms of the disease.

To diagnose arthritis, a doctor will look at your medical history, examine your joints, and may order x-rays and other tests. If appropriate, a referral to a rheumatologist or arthritis specialist will be made for final diagnosis and treatment.

There is currently no cure for most forms of arthritis. Many types of arthritis can be easily and effectively managed and treatment tailored to your individual needs. It may include a mix of medical treatment and medication, physiotherapy, exercise and self-management techniques.

Occasionally replacement of large joints due to osteoarthritis (e.g. knee or hip) or smaller joints due to rheumatoid arthritis (e.g. knuckles or wrist) are necessary to reduce pain and/or improve function.

The most common medications include:

  • Pain-relieving medications (analgesics) – these have no effect on the joint or arthritis, but stop a person feeling pain.
  • Creams and ointments – these can be rubbed into the skin over a painful joint to relieve pain.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – these treat inflammation, pain and swelling.
  • Corticosteroids and injections into joint – if you experience severe pain and inflammation in your joints, a doctor might prescribe this stronger anti-inflammatory medicine, which can be taken as tablets or given by injection directly into the joint, muscle or soft tissue.
  • Disease modifying medications – these are for inflammatory forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Biological medications – if you have inflammatory forms of arthritis, these medications work by targeting certain proteins that that cause inflammation and damage to bones, cartilage and tissue.

Tips for managing arthritis

There are many things you can do to manage arthritis, including:

  • Stay active. Physical activity is the key to maintaining muscle strength and joint flexibility, as well as managing pain. A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can help design an individual program.
  • Learn to manage pain. There are many strategies you can use to deal with pain. Knowing about these is an important part of living with a chronic condition such as arthritis.
  • Maintain diet. While there is no diet that can cure arthritis, a healthy and well-balanced diet is best for general good health. Keeping to a healthy weight is also important as extra weight adds strain to joints.
  • Protect joints. Learn about aids, equipment and gadgets that can make tasks easier. An occupational therapist can help with this.
  • Enrol in a self-management course. Educational programs can help you build your skills and confidence to live with your condition.

Further information and resources


This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you have symptoms of arthritis.