Arthritis – an introduction

Arthritis means ‘inflammation of a joint’. People of all ages can get arthritis, including babies, although it is more common as you get older.

Key points about arthritis

  1. Arthritis is a term used for more than 140 conditions that affect your joints.
  2. It can involve almost any part of your body, most often your knee, hip, spine and other weight-bearing joints, but also smaller joints like fingers and toes.
  3. Some types of arthritis also affect your skin and internal organs.
  4. Pain and stiffness are the most common symptoms.
  5. The 3 most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout arthritis.
  6. While arthritis is a chronic condition with no cure, there are things you can do to manage it well.

What are the different types of arthritis?

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It usually affects the 50-plus age group, and is slightly more common in women than men. It involves a change to the protective cushion of the cartilage covering the ends of your bones, where two bones meet to form a joint.

Read more about osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can start at any age but usually occurs between the ages of 20 and 55. Three times as many women than men are affected. If not properly treated, ongoing inflammation can progressively damage your joints and cause joint deformities. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, so it can also affect other systems in your body.

Read more about rheumatoid arthritis.

Gout arthritis

Gout causes sudden attacks of pain in some joints. It can affect any joint but the first attack usually affects your big toe or another part of your foot. The joint becomes painful and swollen and the skin over the joint can become red and shiny. If not treated, gout can become chronic, causing damage to your joints and bones.

Read more about gout.

Other types of arthritis

Other types of arthritis include:

Who is at risk of getting arthritis?

While anyone can be affected by arthritis at any stage of life, there are 5 groups most at risk:

  • Overweight people – the heavier you get, the more pressure there is on your joints.
  • Older people – ageing increases the chance of getting arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis due to changes to your joints.
  • Sports people – injuries from contact sports and other very physical sports are likely to lead to osteoarthritis. Prompt and appropriate treatment at the time of injury lessens the risk of long-term damage.
  • Women – more women get arthritis than men, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, which most often develops in young or middle-aged women.
  • ori and Pasifika men – Māori and Pasifika men in Aotearoa New Zealand have the highest rate of gout arthritis in the world.

Other risk factors include:

  • having a family history of arthritis
  • if you have had a joint injury or joint infection
  • having worked in heavy physical occupation.

Arthritis in children

Children can develop arthritis too. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a term used to describe arthritis in children. It has also been called juvenile chronic arthritis (JCA). Around 1 in 1000 children are affected by juvenile arthritis. It is commonly diagnosed between the ages of 1 and 4 years, but it can occur at any age.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

You may have arthritis if you have:

  • swelling in one or more joints
  • early morning stiffness for more than a few minutes
  • recurring pain or tenderness in one or more joints
  • reduced movement
  • obvious redness or warmth in one or more joints
  • unexplained weight loss, fever or weakness combined with joint pain.

If you have any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, see your doctor.

What is the treatment for arthritis?

Treatment depends on the type of arthritis and how severe it is. It's important to get a correct diagnosis before beginning any treatment. Generally, for most types of arthritis, the treatment includes:

  • weight management
  • exercise
  • medicine
  • rest
  • joint protection
  • in some cases surgery to correct or prevent deformity, increase mobility and improve quality of life.

What self-care can I do with arthritis?

A range of self-care practices can help you manage and reduce the effects of arthritis.

These may include:

  • diet
  • medicine
  • physical activity
  • joint protection
  • stress management
  • hot/cold therapy
  • weight management to prevent extra stress on weight-bearing joints
  • evidence-based complementary therapies.

Self-care courses and programmes

Research has shown that people who exercise regularly, practice relaxation and/or use other self-care techniques have less pain and are more active than people who do not self-manage their condition. Courses are designed to give you the skills needed to take a more active part in your arthritis care, together with a healthcare team.

Visit our self-care programmes section to see if there is a course in your area.

Where can I get support with arthritis?

Arthritis NZ Freephone 0800 663 463

Arthritis NZ employs skilled educators. They can give you information and advice, refer you to other health professionals and/or agencies, put you in touch with support and exercise groups throughout the country. Although they don't provide special equipment and aids for daily living, they can let you know where to get them in your area. 

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dave Cox, Clinical Lead Health Advice, Arthritis NZ Last reviewed: 21 Apr 2021