Many of us believe that inflamed joints are an inevitable part of the aging process, part of the price we must ultimately pay for living a long and active life. Current medical thought disputes this belief, and points to chronic inflammation in any body system as destructive to health and largely avoidable.
What Causes Inflamed Joints?
Inflammation, just as with fever and other bodily responses to stresses and attacks by outside agents, has a very real adaptive purpose to maintaining health. Bacteria and viruses for example have evolved to flourish in a narrow range of normal body temperature. Once these germs have gained entrance to our bodies, our immune systems assault the invaders on several fronts, including elevating temperature. This increase may be general, as in a fever, or localized at the point of injury or entry into the body. Blood flow to the affected area increases as does the production of white blood cells which contain specific chemicals designed to create inflammation. The result is often redness and warmth, pain and stiffness. It is by this method most often that a healthy immune system is able to throw off illness and recover from injury or invasion by pathogens.
But sometimes our immune systems get it wrong and attack the very body structures and tissues they are supposed to protect, unable to distinguish between infecting foreign bodies and our own body chemistry. It is this failure that is most at the root of inflammation of our joints.
The most prevalent cause of joint inflammation is arthritis. Arthritis is a catch-all term for several types of joint irritation, the most common of which is osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis bones undergo overgrowth causing development of small spurs that irritate and inflame surrounding tissue.
There are other types of arthritis, including gout (the body’s reaction to accumulation of uric acid crystals in, most commonly, the bones of the foot, and less commonly, rheumatoid arthritis. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system turns upon itself and attacks the joints as though they were infections. Lupus is another autoimmune disorder which can attack any body system, including the joints, and cause chronic inflammation.
There are several other conditions which may also result in inflamed joints. These include ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of the spine and vertebrae); carpal tunnel syndrome (pressure on the median nerve of the hands); fibromyalgia (pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons, often body wide); Lyme disease (carried by the deer tick, it causes widespread inflammation in any number of body systems), tendonitis and bursitis. A rare condition called scleroderma, marked by skin hardening, can also inflame joints and muscles. Identification of the causative process is therefore vital to understanding and dealing with the problem.
Treating Inflamed Joints
Chronic inflammation has very real ramifications for joint health, aside from the discomfort caused by swelling and stiffness. Untreated, the cartilage between our bones can be worn away, and the synovial fluid which lubricates our joints can invade and degrade the surrounding bone.
In order to treat joint inflammation and relieve pain and swelling, it is necessary to identify the type of process at work. Your doctor must be considered your first and best ally in discovering the root cause of your swollen joints, and will often withdraw fluid from the joints as part of his diagnostic investigations. A physician will help you create a treatment program which also includes coping strategies, and which may involve referring you to a specialist for further and more extensive treatment, depending on the identification of which type of arthritis or immune disorder you have. Exercise; dietary restrictions; drug therapies (both prescription strength and over the counter) steroidal and non-steroidal; the use of orthotics and braces; elastic wrappings, and many more treatment options exist for the treatment of joint inflammation.
The bottom line is, you don’t have to inevitably suffer from painful, stiff joints, and being proactive, researching and responding positively to the realities of your condition will go a long way to lasting relief and a life free of unnecessary discomfort.