ABC's of Arthritis: FAQs

Public and Patient Education Department Program

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a chronic condition in which cartilage in the joints breaks down. Cartilage is the spongy tissue that cushions the ends of bones and allows the joints to move with more ease. It acts as a shock absorber. Normally, damaged cartilage is constantly being repaired as old cartilage is degraded.

When the balance between degradation and repair is thrown off, cartilage breakdown occurs, and as a result of cartilage breakdown, damage to bone occurs. The result can be painful, tender, creaky joints and limited joint movement. OA is the most common form of arthritis and affects nearly 21 million Americans, mostly adults over the age of 65. It is also a leading cause of disability.

What are some things I can do to help manage my arthritis?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, a good treatment program can help you decrease joint pain and stiffness, improve joint movement, and increase your ability to do everyday activities. A plan should be designed especially for you and should include a combination of physical and/or occupational therapy, exercise, weight control, patient education, and medication. When these measures do not help, surgery may be considered.

Your treatment program should be based on how severe your disease is, which joints are affected, the nature of your symptoms, and other medical problems. Your age, occupation, and everyday work activities should also be taken into consideration. You should endeavor, in partnership with your doctor and other health professionals, such as physical and occupational therapists, to make sure your program meets your needs.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, systemic disease, mainly characterized by inflammation of the lining of synovial joints. Systemic means that many parts of the body can be involved. Inflammation means there is redness, warmth, swelling, and functional limitation in the joints, which can lead to joint damage, a major focus of the newer therapies for RA.

RA is one of the most debilitating forms of arthritis and can lead to long-term damage, loss of function, and disability. RA can start at any joint, but most commonly begins in the smaller joints of the fingers, hands, and wrists.

What is the difference between gout and pseudogout?

Gout is a form of arthritis that causes sudden, severe episodes of pain, tenderness, redness, warmth, and swelling of joints. It usually affects one joint at a time. The most common joint that is affected by gout is the large joint of the big toe.

In particular, it's important to distinguish between true gout and pseudogout. While the initial symptoms of these two diseases can be similar, their treatments are very different. The key method to differentiate the two is to examine the joint fluid. Gout inflammation in the joint is caused by uric acid crystals, while pseudogout joint inflammation is caused by crystals formed from calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate (CPPD). For this reason, another name for pseudogout is calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease.


Headshot of Linda A. Russell, MD
Linda A. Russell, MD
Associate Attending Physician, Hospital for Special Surgery
Director of Perioperative Services, Hospital for Special Surgery

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