Arthritis: Definition and What it is

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Arthritis Definition and Meaning

Arthritis is a catch-all term for conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissues, with symptoms that include joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and swelling that can make certain movements and activities more difficult. Although arthritis can feel like it's limiting your abilities, there's a lot you can do to improve symptoms and relieve arthritis pain.

Arthritis Types

There are two main categories of arthritis: osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis. Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, is characterized by gradual cartilage changes in a joint. For some, it can cause symptoms such as pain and stiffness that tend to worsen after activity. Inflammatory arthritis is the result of an overactive immune response, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, resulting in chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and spondyloarthritis are common types of inflammatory arthritis. 

Unlike OA, which might occur in just one part of the body (like the hands, neck, knee, ankle, wrist, or hip), inflammatory arthritis tends to impact multiple joints throughout the body. So if you only have arthritis in one shoulder, for instance, the discomfort is less likely to be RA or another form of inflammatory arthritis.

Arthritis Symptoms

Individuals with arthritis may experience a range of symptoms, including joint pain (periods of increased pain and symptoms are usually referred to as flares), achiness, stiffness, and tenderness. This, in turn, can lead to loss of flexibility and range of motion, which can make daily activities such as walking, bending, or climbing stairs, more difficult. Some may experience swelling (due to increased fluid in the joints) or feel a grating or cracking sensation within the joint when they move. With inflammatory forms of arthritis, you may experience chronic fatigue and even a low-grade fever.

Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Everyone’s experience with arthritis is unique. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing arthritis and it can be highly dependent on the type of arthritis and its severity. And while reading about arthritis may feel scary or like your joints are “damaged,” there’s a lot that’s in your control to manage the symptoms of arthritis.

Many people worry that exercise will make their arthritis pain worse, may not be safe for their joints, or do more damage. All of these are myths. In fact, being sedentary is associated with worsening arthritis symptoms. Targeted exercises and stretches, on the other hand, can help keep joints healthy and strengthen weaker muscles that often accompany arthritis and contribute to pain. 

And beyond the physical benefits (decreased pain and stiffness), exercise therapy for arthritis boasts psychological benefits (improved emotional well-being) and functional benefits (more independence and improved ability to do daily tasks). No matter what symptoms you have, movement is medicine for arthritis.  

Arthritis Treatment

In addition to exercise therapy, there are a range of treatment options that can help manage the symptoms of arthritis. Depending on the type and severity of the arthritis, treatments range from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain medication to steroid injections to ice and heat to reduce swelling. Lifestyle changes, like focusing on gentler movements and modifications for the affected joints, eating a healthier diet, and prioritizing sleep, can all help ease arthritis symptoms. 

If you have inflammatory arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints. 

How Physical Therapy Can Help With Arthritis

Physical therapy can help improve mobility, increase strength, and maintain joint function. Physical therapists (PTs) may recommend various techniques, including exercises for specific types of arthritis, to improve strength and joint flexibility. PTs often use other methods, such as heat and cold therapy, to ease joint pain and swelling. And they can recommend adaptive equipment, like a key turner tool or grip wrench, to make everyday tasks easier by allowing you to engage larger joints to complete tasks that usually require more dexterity in smaller joints. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.


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