Arthritis is becoming a disease of the masses, striking 21% of U.S. adults, or over 53 million people, a new report shows.

“It’s important first to point out that arthritis is a general term that includes over a hundred different chronic diseases that affect the joints and the tissues around those joints,” said researcher Elizabeth Fallon, an epidemiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The finding was culled from an analysis of data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2019 to 2021.

How did the numbers break out? About 88% of all arthritis cases were adults aged 45 and up, while about 50% were working-age people ranging in age from 18 to 64.

Additional risk factors included being a woman, being a veteran or having another chronic disease or disability, Fallon said.

Although this analysis didn’t look for trends over time, “it’s already a large public health problem,” Fallon noted. “If it’s growing, we need to know that so we can appropriately address it from a public health perspective.”

Arthritis is a leading cause of activity limitations and disability, as well as chronic pain.

A common thread in the findings was that more than half of folks who had arthritis also had other health conditions. About 58% of people who have COPD have arthritis, as do 56% of those with dementia, 53% who have had a stroke and 52% with heart disease. About 55% of adults with a disability have arthritis.

“Arthritis can be a barrier to engaging in, for example, physical activity, that we know would be beneficial for managing arthritis, but also beneficial for managing those other chronic diseases,” Fallon explained.

“If a physician is working with the individual who has heart disease and is recommending physical activity, they should also be aware that that person is likely to have arthritis,” Fallon added. “And if that’s a barrier to their physical activity, [doctors should] … help to connect them with community-based programs to help them address physical activity in a way that works for them.”

Steps to help prevent and manage arthritis can include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and avoiding joint injury, according to the CDC.

Fallon said she thinks people sometimes feel they don’t have enough help to become more physically active. They can visit the CDC to learn more about arthritis and physical activity or call the Arthritis Foundation’s hotline, she suggested.

Individuals with arthritis may find they can engage in a variety of different activities to get exercise, including walking, yoga, tai chi, swimming, water aerobics, gardening and dancing, Fallon said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for people to be physically active in a way that doesn’t bring pain associated with it,” Fallon said.

The findings were published Oct. 13 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Dr. Thanda Aung, an assistant clinical professor of rheumatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said she was not surprised by the data.

Aung treats patients with the many different types of arthritis, from ankylosing spondylitis to rheumatoid arthritis to gout, which she noted has increased over the years.

By far, the most common form she sees is osteoarthritis.

Aung thinks it’s likely the reasons for growth of various arthritis conditions are multifaceted.

The population is aging, but also “we have more knowledge and we have more tools” to diagnose and treat these conditions, Aung said.

Aung divides arthritis conditions into two groups, osteoarthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

“The first group is challenging,” Aung said. “We have supportive therapy to start with, which is physical therapy. We get pain control. Sometimes we do joint injections. In appropriate cases, we do joint replacement. Shoulder replacement, knee replacement, hip replacement. But we don’t have any specific treatment targeted to the joint damage,” Aung said.

The good news for those with inflammatory conditions is they’re treatable, Aung said.

“Nowadays we have newer generation medications” that help suppress an overactive immune system, she explained, although that can leave patients more vulnerable to infections.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on osteoarthritis.

SOURCES: Thanda Aung, MD, assistant clinical professor, rheumatology, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, Los Angeles; Elizabeth Fallon, PhD, epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct. 13, 2023