IT'S "a major national health problem," says the Arthritis Foundation. In 1995, 40 million Americans had some form of arthritis, which sounds bad enough as it is. But by 2020, experts maintain, that figure will rise to nearly 60 million-or one in every five of us.

The impact could be enormous. The pain, stiffness, and swelling in or around the joints that is caused by arthritis prevents people from engaging in the simplest activities, such as climbing stairs, walking for more than a few blocks, or even performing everyday tasks like dressing and bathing. Indeed, arthritis is second only to heart disease in keeping people out of work.

It might seem that it can't be helped. After all, the predicted increase is based on the fact that the U.S. population is aging (arthritis prevalence increases with age). Perhaps that's why more than half the people who have been diagnosed with arthritis aren't even receiving any kind of treatment, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Explains Doyt Conn, MD, senior vice president of medical affairs for the Arthritis Foundation, many people who have arthritis--and even some of their physicians--dismiss the pain, thinking it's just an inevitable consequence of getting older.

But experts say that's wrong thinking. Arthritis is not just an old person's disease. More than half the people who have it are under the age of 65. Furthermore, arthritis pain is not inevitable. In fact, it's even possible to reduce your risk of developing some forms of the disease. Here's how:

Maintain a healthy weight. Consider that men who are overweight boost their risk of developing gout, a particularly painful form of arthritis in which crystals accumulate in the joints. Excess weight can also increase a woman's risk of developing osteoarthritis, particularly in her knees.
Protect injured joints from further damage by strengthening the muscles around them. People who have injured a joint--whether by accident or overuse--are at greater risk for osteoarthritis. Strength training or low-impact aerobic activities like bike riding or walking can help to prevent wear and tear of the joints later on.
Seek a doctor's advice as soon as you notice something wrong (pain, stiffness, swelling, or difficulty moving a joint). Getting prompt treatment can help to slow or prevent damage that might progress if you just "let it go." For instance, different medications and hot and cold packs can relieve pain and stiffness.
Take advantage of assistive devices, like canes, walkers, or special kitchen utensils, which can help to reduce stress on certain joints.

Although "arthritis" is a general term for "pain in the joints," there are more than 100 different forms of arthritis and related diseases. The most common:

Osteoarthritis (20.7 million people) -- "Wear and tear" arthritis that affects the fingers and weight-bearing joints such as those in the knees, hips, and back.

Fibromyalgia (3.7 million) -- Causes fatigue and widespread pain sensitivity at different "tender points" on the body, most notably around the neck.

Rheumatoid arthritis (2.1 million)-- Causes painful joint stiffness and swelling.

Gout (2.1 million) -- Results when a substance called uric acid accumulates and crystallizes in the joints-especially those in the big toe, knees, and wrists.

Lupus (239,000) - Can damage the skin, kidneys, head, and lungs along with joints.

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