Arthritis – an introduction

Arthritis literally means ‘inflammation of a joint’ and is common as we get older.

According to Arthritis New Zealand, arthritis affects more than 624,000 New Zealanders and is the greatest cause of disability in New Zealand. There are more than 140 recognised forms of arthritis, but the three most common types are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.


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 the breakdown of the protective cushion of the cartilage covering the ends of the 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 joints and cause joint deformities. As an autoimmune condition, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect other systems of the body.

Read more about rheumatoid arthritis


Gout causes sudden attacks of pain in some joints. It can affect any joint but the first attack usually affects the big toe or another part of the 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 the joints and bones.

Read more about gout

Other types of arthritis include:

Who is at risk from arthritis?

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

  • Overweight people – the heavier we get, the more pressure on our joints.
  • Older people – ageing increases the chance of getting arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis due to wear and tear on joints.
  • Sports people – injuries from contact 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. The onset of rheumatoid arthritis tends to be in young women or those of middle age.
  • Maori and Pacific men – New Zealand Maori and Pacific men have the highest incidence of gout 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 is affected by juvenile arthritis. It is commonly diagnosed between ages 1 and 4 years, but can occur at any age.


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 two weeks, see your doctor.


Treatment depends on the type and severity of arthritis. It's important a correct diagnosis is made before beginning any treatment. Generally, for most types of arthritis, the treatment will include:

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

Self care

A variety of self care practices can help people control and reduce the effects of arthritis. These may include:

  • diet
  • medication
  • physical activity (see videos in treatment section)
  • joint protection
  • stress management
  • hot/cold therapy
  • weight control 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 are not self-managers. 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.


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.
  • They can also help you obtain special equipment and aids for daily living. 
Credits: Arthritis New Zealand and Health Navigator, May 2017. Images Reviewed By: Editorial team Last reviewed: 20 Jul 2017