Because the term ‘arthritis’ encompasses over 100 different medical conditions, it is difficult to pin point just one cause of arthritis. However, based on the number of people who are diagnosed with arthritis the vast majority – over 85% – are diagnosed with either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
In any of the disorders that carry the name arthritis, there is a joint inflammation in an area where two bones meet. This pain and inflammation can be caused by the wear and tear of the joint, such as osteoarthritis or injury, or from an immune system gone awry, such as rheumatoid arthritis. The causes depend upon the type.
To better understand the pain, inflammation and swelling let’s take a short look at how a joint works. Inside of the area of the body where two bones meet, creating a joint, there are ligaments that hold the bones together. There is also cartilage that covers the surface of both bones and keeps the bony surfaces from rubbing together. Surround the entire joint is a capsule, called the joint cavity, filled with synovial fluid which nourishes the cartilage and the joint. This fluid is produced by the membrane that lines the cavity. When something goes wrong to cause the symptoms of arthritis it will affect the cartilage, synovial fluid, membrane and the bones.
Arthritis that is immediate and may or may not leave permanent damage is infectious arthritis. This is an inflammation of the joint brought on by an infection in the joint space. If left untreated it can result in total joint destruction. The infection often is a result of infected blood that leaks into the joint or from an inadvertent stab into the joint. For instance, if an elderly woman has an infection in her blood and falls, causing bleeding into the wrist joint, she can develop infectious arthritis in that joint. A young child who is out running and playing can experience a puncture wound near the knee joint and subsequently develop infectious arthritis in that joint.
The causes of rheumatoid arthritis are yet unknown. At this point researchers suspect that some infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi may be responsible, although there has been no proof. There is also some evidence of a genetic link because the condition ‘runs in families’. While the exact causative trigger isn’t known doctors do know that something ramps up the immune system and it begins to attack itself, promoting inflammation in the joints and other tissues in the body.
There is some evidence that some of the triggers are environmental because scientists have reported that smoking tobacco will increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in young adults and adults.
At this time doctors have labeled osteoarthritis as the condition of old age. This is because the condition forms in most people over the age of 60 when the wear and tear of life exceeds the ability of the cartilage and synovial fluid to prevent degeneration. Doctors do know that with increased stress this degeneration occurs more quickly and severely. For instance, an individual who is overweight will have greater pain, inflammation and severe disease process than someone who is of normal weight. Losing weight will also help to reduce the symptoms and decrease the advancement of the condition.
While the exact causes of arthritis may not be identified doctors have identified factors that can reduce the pain, inflammation, swelling and prevent further destruction of the joint. It is important to thoroughly research the type of arthritis you have been diagnosed with in order to work with your physician to find a treatment protocol which will be successful.