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Research & Innovation

What Is Arthritis?

September 14, 2021

Arthritis, generally, causes pain and swelling in the joints, due to cartilage damage.  

“Cartilage is that material you might see at the ends of chicken bones—that white, glistening substance—and that’s what lets the bones glide against each other,” says Yale Medicine orthopaedic surgeon Daniel Wiznia, MD.  

Arthritis from damaged cartilage can arise in patients of all ages. In younger people, the culprit might be rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is an autoimmune disease that warps the immune system to the point where it attacks its own joints. (It’s estimated that one million Americans suffer from RA.)  

For older people with similar symptoms, it’s likely that the cartilage has worn down over many years of use. Dr. Wiznia adds that there is no way “from a biological standpoint” to repair that damage.      

“Cartilage has a very complex architecture, so the next step is really to start to consider total joint replacement,” Dr. Wiznia says.  

In total joint replacement, doctors replace the surfaces of bones with other smooth surfaces, made from materials ranging from metal to plastic to ceramic. The right implant for one patient may not work well for another, Dr. Wiznia notes; surgeons must match the joint replacement to each patient’s needs. While it’s a complicated process, patients who come to Yale are able to work with their doctors to create a custom plan that’s right for them. But it’s important not to delay treatment.  

“What I have found is a lot of patients hold off on surgery, perhaps a little bit too long,” Dr. Wiznia says. “Joint replacement can be very transformative and get them back to returning to some of their activities.”  

If you’re getting to the point where you’re holding yourself back from activity, Dr. Wiznia adds, it’s time to see a doctor.  

In this video, Dr. Wiznia explains the different types of arthritis and why total joint replacement might be the best treatment option.