For the more than 46 million people in the United States living with arthritis, life means some amount of pain most days, and, for some, every day. With so many millions affected, it’s little surprise to hear that arthritis is the top cause of disability in the U.S.
Even if you’re dealing with it yourself, you may not realize that joint pain is a symptom in over 100 distinct medical conditions, all of which fall under the broad umbrella of arthritis. And maybe you don’t know that that persistent ache costs us, as a country, roughly $128 billion annually in medical care and indirect costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That makes arthritis among the biggest healthcare problems in the U.S, outranked only by diabetes and heart disease. It’s not a static problem, either, says Kevin Fontaine, Ph.D., assistant professor of rheumatology in the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. The number of people living with arthritis is growing by 750,000 people each year, and as the population gets older that number is just going to get bigger. The implications in terms of medical, economic and quality-of-life issues are enormous.
Unlike big killers such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, though, arthritis is anything but silent. Patients describe it as sharp, stabbing, achy, intense, throbbing and notoriously hard to treat. It’s always there, says Pat Conger, 68, who has been living with osteoarthritis (OA) in her right wrist and hand for a decade. Sometimes it’s just a dull ache that feels kind of like having a cramp, and sometimes it’s so bad it feels like someone stuck a thousand pins in my hand every time I move it even a little bit.
That’s the bad news. Here’s some encouraging news: If you have arthritis you know that analgesics and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are typically a first line of defense against the hallmark symptoms of arthritis: inflammation and the dull, persistent ache of damaged joint tissue.
Fortunately, medications have gotten better over the past decade. That’s thanks largely to the debut of biologic response modifiers (often called biologics) like Humira (adalimumab) and Enbrel (etanercept), which treat different types of arthritis and work by blocking the chemicals that trigger inflammation.
Also, new surgical techniques and materials are part of physicians arsenal, like meniscus transplants used in knee arthroscopy to slow the progress of OA, and new materials such as highly cross-linked polyethylene, a long-wearing, flexible polymer used to replace damaged joints. This all makes for a much brighter picture for those hoping to ease their arthritis pain and slow the condition’s progress and damage.
Even better, there’s a lot you can do on your own to take control, says Dennis Boulware, M.D., a rheumatologist in Honolulu, and a member of the board of the American College of Rheumatologists. Patients often have more power than they think they do to change the way they feel.
Relief from arthritis shouldn’t be all about medical treatment, not by a long shot: A December 2009 study published in the Journal Arthritis & Rheumatism suggests that a combination of medication and lifestyle changes could significantly reduce the annual cost of treating OA alone.