In its simplest definition, arthritis is an inflammation of the joints resulting in swelling, pain, stiffness and limited mobility in the affected area. As one of the most common disabling conditions known to medical professionals, there are dozens upon dozens of different types of the condition ranging from mildly discomforting to wholly debilitating.

Arthritis occurs when cartilage—responsible for the movement and projection of our joints—begins to deteriorate. The result is bones rubbing against one another, causing pain and limiting flexibility and movement. And whereas a loss of cartilage is the most common cause of most forms of arthritis, there are other reasons it occurs, including viral or bacterial infections; autoimmune diseases; and as a result of injuries, especially when bones are broken.

Symptoms of arthritis within the joints are varied depending on what form the disease takes. Most commonly arthritis sufferers experience pain and stiffness; limitations to their movement and flexibility; a discoloration or redness on their skin, often accompanied by a warmth at the affected area; and mild to signification swelling of the joint.

When diagnosing arthritis, physicians delve into a patient’s history, looking for underlying causes such as a genetic disposition, injuries or musculoskeletal conditions. They may also order tests of blood and urine and examine joint fluid. Imaging is also a significant part of a diagnosis, including x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, all of which give a doctor the ability to see problems within the joint. And in rare cases arthroscopic procedures–in which a tube is inserted into the affected area, giving a view inside the joint—are utilized.

After determining the cause of the disease and the degree to which it’s causing pain and limiting movement in different joints of the body, a physician may recommend medications that counter inflammation such as antirheumatics and corticosteroids. Additionally, sufferers of arthritis may benefit from physical therapy, which can help with range of movement and strengthen the muscles around the affected joints. Splints and braces may also be prescribed as needed. When the aforementioned treatments fail to significantly alleviate pain or restore acceptable ranges of motion, surgery may be advised and take the form of joint replacements or fusions.