Joint Disease Affects Tens of Millions of Americans
January 2003 — Fergus doesn't know why he developed rheumatoid arthritis so young. It might have been a virus or the result of an injury. Whatever the reason, the construction project manager developed joint pain so severe that he could barely walk or lift his arms.
In 1974, two years after his symptoms appeared, a co-worker referred him to Charles Kahn, MD, rheumatologist on the medical staff at Memorial Regional Hospital and Memorial Hospital West. "When I found Dr. Kahn, my whole life changed," Fergus, 61, says. "He took time to try different ideas and to find the right combination of treatments for me."
Fergus is among 70 million Americans adults who have arthritis, according to a recent report. Although higher than previously thought, the number is still low because it counts only those who have symptoms.
"Everyone older than 40 has some degree of osteoarthritis, but many people don't have symptoms," Dr. Kahn says. "Osteoarthritis is simply a wear-and-tear condition. If you live long enough, you'll develop osteoarthritis."
More than 70 different types of arthritis are known, the most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis results from the breakdown of joint cartilage, causing bones to rub together. Rheumatoid arthritis is inflammation of joint linings, causing pain, stiffness, redness and swelling. Why has the number of Americans reported to have arthritis increased so dramatically?
In part, because patients, encouraged by new promises of relief, are seeking treatment.
"People are more aware of arthritis symptoms and of the fact that there are more effective therapies than ever," Dr. Kahn says. "Also, primary care physicians are referring more patients to specialists because these new treatments are available."
Treatment and Prevention
As with many conditions, prevention is the first line of defense. Losing excess weight and getting plenty of exercise are two ways to keep joints healthy. If arthritis does develop, however, early and aggressive treatment is important.
"As a rule, you should get help if you develop acute pain in a joint or if you experience symptoms such as swelling, heat or severe tenderness that last several days," Dr. Kahn says. "If the problem is an injury, it will usually clear up in a short time. Inflammatory joint disease won't clear up and should be evaluated by a doctor."
Physical therapy and exercise are commonly prescribed, and new medications offer effective treatment without the side effects of previous drugs. Joint-replacement surgery may be recommended if arthritis-related pain is severe or the condition limits the patient's ability to perform simple tasks such as walking.
For Fergus, treatment included shedding pounds and exercising at the Memorial Regional Hospital Fitness Center. He also had surgery on his hip, shoulder and knee. About two years ago, Dr. Kahn gave Fergus a new medication called etanercept.
The combination has made "a tremendous difference," Fergus says. "I feel more chipper and my joints are a lot more flexible. My experience with Memorial and Dr. Kahn has been excellent. I have nothing but the highest praise for both."
If you are experiencing symptoms of arthritis, see your doctor. For referral to a physician in your area, call the Memorial Healthcare System Physician Referral Service at (800) 944-DOCS.