Other Voices

Don’t accept arthritis as just the aches and pains of getting old

X-rays of both human's hands and arthritis at multiple joints.
X-rays of both human's hands and arthritis at multiple joints. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pain is the body’s way of alerting us that something is wrong.

Whether we’ve touched a hot stove and felt the immediate searing consequences, or twisted an ankle during a workout, our bodies use pain as a defensive mechanism, telling us, simply, to stop.

Unfortunately, some types of pain can be difficult to diagnose and complex to treat, leaving millions of Americans to ignore their bodies’ persistent, protective signals.

Arthritis, especially, is commonly dismissed merely as the aches and pains of aging, something that those who suffer from it must learn to live with.

No one should have to live with — or suffer from — a severe, persistent and debilitating condition like arthritis.

Yet here in Texas, 3.6 million adults and 25,000 children struggle with the effects of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases, which rob them of mobility and quality of life.

It’s important to note that arthritis is an umbrella term encompassing more than 100 conditions affecting joints and connective tissue.

Nationwide, these conditions are the country’s leading cause of disability, affecting more than 50 million Americans and generating more than $128 billion in annual health costs.

Rheumatic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus and gout, to name a few, occur when the body’s immune system goes awry and mistakenly attacks organs, tissues and joints.

The resulting inflammatory process leads to thickening of the joints’ tissues, swelling and pain.

When not properly diagnosed and treated, rheumatic disease leads to damage that makes joints loose, unstable and painful.

Inflammatory arthritis is systemic, meaning it not only affects joints but also other systems of the body, such as the heart, lungs, eyes and brain.

Simple tasks like getting up each morning, buttoning a shirt, brushing hair or even walking can become excruciatingly painful or even impossible.

But although the lifelong effects of these conditions can be devastating, early intervention and prompt treatment by a rheumatologist can help patients manage pain and avoid disability.

Rheumatologists — who have specialized training in detecting and treating these complex conditions — can often dramatically improve a patient’s lifetime prognosis when arthritis is recognized and treated early.

Seeing a rheumatologist within the “window of opportunity” — or the first weeks and months when a patient begins experiences symptoms — can open up more effective treatment options and give patients a better chance at disease remission.

Painful joints should not be dismissed simply as the consequences of aging — in fact, two-thirds of individuals living with arthritis are under the age of 65.

Statistics show that rheumatoid arthritis often develops between the ages of 20 and 40.

Parents of young children should also be wary of any persistent, inexplicable joint pain.

Nearly 300,000 American children suffer from rheumatic diseases — the most common of which is painful juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

It is estimated that one child in every 1,000 will develop some form of rheumatic disease.

Rather than be dismissed or ignored, pain should set off internal alarm bells telling us to stop and seek help.

If you’re not certain whether your pain merits a trip to a rheumatologist, I encourage you to take the time to learn more about arthritis, its symptoms and whether you might benefit from visiting a trained specialist.

The American College of Rheumatology offers a clearinghouse of useful information via its Simple Tasks (www.simpletasks.org) website.

Stopping, listening to one’s body, and caring for one’s self isn’t always easy, but it’s important in order to keep our amazing machinery functioning for years to come.

Dr. Sharad Lakhanpal is a clinical professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.