WASHINGTON – There still is no effective drug treatment for the most common form of arthritis – osteoarthritis – and all types of the disease combined cost about $304 billion a year in medical care and lost wages so more federal research funding is needed, arthritis experts said at a congressional briefing Thursday.

According to recent arthritis-related cost data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, direct and indirect costs of the disease have doubled over the past 15 years, now accounting for $304 billion in lost wages and medical expenses annually. The disease now affects nearly 54 million Americans ‒ one in four U.S. adults, a number that is projected to increase to 78 million by 2040.

“What we’ve been saying for years, and it’s still true, is that these huge numbers show that arthritis is a large problem and an expensive problem,” Dr. Chad Helmick, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, told staffers for members of Congress.

Helmick said there are several reasons for the increased costs,  including the development of new drugs that are effective but  very expensive and the fact that many people with arthritis require costly joint replacements — the “fastest growing procedure in the U.S.”

Dr. Angus Worthing, a rheumatologist from the American College of Rheumatology, said that there are effective medications to help stop the progression of some forms of the disease, but the most common form ‒ osteoarthritis ‒ has no impactful drug treatment for many patients.

“We’re excited to work with lawmakers on funding arthritis research in the coming months to figure out the next prevention treatments,” he said. “Fortunately, Congress also has an opportunity to put $20 million of existing (research) funding specifically toward arthritis and related diseases through a Congressionally Directed Medical Research program, which would study its impact on veterans and service members.”

Helmick noted that spending more to reduce arthritis could help in other pain-related health problems facing the country.

“Arthritis is a very important component of pain, and pain is related to a lot of things we’re seeing in the news,” he said. “Pain is related to the opioid problem we have nowadays, and it really has not been addressed very directly. If you’re going to address pain problems and reduce opioids, I think you’ll find it’ll link to things like back pain and arthritis which are very common causes of pain.”

Erin Vago, a juvenile arthritis patient and Arthritis Foundation ambassador, told the congressional staff members that she struggles to manage the disease as an aspiring actress studying theater in college.

“I’m worried that someday I might not be able to pursue my passion due to my chronic disease,” she said. “What I’ve learned so far is the importance of self-care. How important it is to be able to say no when I’m in pain because I need to take care of myself.”