Arthritis Is Not Just for the Elderly

The word "arthritis" conjures images of old, gnarled hands and grandparents walking with canes, but arthritis isn't just a disease that affects the elderly. Young adults, teens and even children get arthritis too.

There are over a hundred different types of arthritis, a term that simply means "inflammation of the joints." The structures that create a joint consist of two bones, covered with cartilage (a firm, rubbery substance that acts as a shock absorber to protect bones from friction) and surrounded by connective tissue, ligaments, tendons and muscle. When arthritis occurs, either two bones rub together and create inflammation in the surround tissues or a disease process attacks the tissues surrounding a joint, creating inflammation. When the joint becomes inflamed, it gets painful, stiff, swollen and eventually, damaged to the point where it limits movement.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the kind most commonly attributed to the elderly. This type of arthritis is caused by wear and tear or erosion of tissues over time. Twenty-seven million adults have OA, which typically affects the knees, neck, hip, hands and feet. Primary OA is caused by age and erosion of cartilage. Secondary OA is attributed to joint damage that occurs due to injury. Both types of osteoarthritis typically occur after age 45. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the joints of 1.3 million Americans.  It typically begins in adults between the ages of 30 and 60, but young adults in their 20s and even teens can get RA too. Approximately 1 in 400-500 women and 1 in 1000 men in their 20s have RA. An autoimmune disorder is one in which the immune system (which is designed to protect the body from disease) attacks the body's own tissues.  With rheumatoid arthritis the immune system attacks the synovium, a thin membrane that lines the joints. This causes fluid build up in the joints, pain and an inflammatory process that affects not just the joint, but many systems through the body. This systemic inflammatory process can damage the heart, lungs and other vital organs. We don't know what causes RA, but early identification, diagnosis and treatment with disease-modifying drugs can put this progressive and chronic disease (which currently has no cure) into remission and hopefully prevent long-term damage and disability. 

Juvenile Arthritis (JA) affects approximately 300,000 children in the US. It's an umbrella term that covers many different inflammatory and autoimmune disorders that cause joint inflammation in children younger than 16. The most common diagnosis made for JA is juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which essentially means arthritis of unknown origin. Similar to RA the key for children with JA to living as healthy a life as possible is early diagnosis and treatment to put the disease into remission. 

If you're "too young" for the joint pain you're experiencing, see your doctor immediately.  While no one knows what causes RA and JA, we do know that early diagnosis and treatment can mean the difference between a long, healthy and active life and one that's painful and disabling. 

Dr. Nathan Wei, MD reviewed this article.


Arthritis Foundation

Rheumatoid Arthritis