Arthritis is one of the main causes of disability in the UK. A study by the Arthritis Research Campaign (Arthritis: The Big Picture) concluded that many people are confused about what arthritis is and ARC estimates that there may be twice as many people with the condition than see their GP about it. To mark National Arthritis Week, this blog discusses what arthritis is, what it’s like to live with the condition and what treatment options are available.
What is arthritis?
Approximately 10 million people in the UK live with arthritis which is a degenerative disease that affects the joints of the body – anywhere that two bones meet and move (hips, knees, shoulders etc.). There are many different types of arthritis but the two most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Osteoarthritis: Of the estimated 10 million arthritis sufferers in the UK, around 8.75 million of them seek medical help for osteoarthritis. This type of arthritis is linked to ageing and is sometimes called wear and tear arthritis. Over time, the cartilage in the joint, which allows the bones to move smoothly over each other, starts to wear away and become rough. This can lead to joint damage, pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis occurs most frequently over the age of 45 and is most common in women. Being overweight increases the risk and severity of the disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This is an autoimmune condition, which is when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, such as the joints, causing inflammation. The resultant fluid in the joint can make it stiff and painful and may stretch the joint capsule. Chemicals within the fluid can damage the joint and bones. This condition can affect adults of any age but is most common in people aged between 40 and 60, with women more likely to be affected than men.
Other forms of arthritis include gout (an inflammatory arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the body), psoriatic arthritis which is linked to psoriasis and fatigue, and juvenile idiopathic arthritis which affects children below the age of 16.
It is not always possible to identify the causes of arthritis. Certain factors appear to increase your risk of the condition, including your genes, your age and whether you are a man or a woman. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for arthritis but there are effective ways to manage the symptoms and treatments are improving all the time.
Symptoms and how to manage them
Arthritis symptoms tend to worsen over time and may vary from week to week. It is common to experience:
- stiff and swollen joints
- loss of mobility
- deteriorating quality of life.
Exercise: Although pain might make exercising harder at first, it is important to stay active as this can help to reduce pain and swelling and maintain suppleness within the joints. Exercise improves muscles strength so the muscles can provide better joint support and also helps to maintain a healthy body weight, reducing the stress on damaged joints. When you exercise your body produces chemicals called endorphins which are natural painkillers. Low impact exercise, such as swimming, cycling yoga, Pilates or T’ai Chi, can be particularly effective for managing arthritis symptoms.
Diet: Eating a healthy balanced diet that is low in sugar can help you to maintain a healthy body weight which will reduce the strain on your joints. Getting a good range of vitamins and minerals may also help to reduce the side-effects from some drugs and protect you against certain heart and blood conditions, which can be a complication of some types of arthritis. Getting sufficient calcium in your diet can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis which may lead to fractures. It’s also important to get the right amount of vitamin D as this helps your body to absorb calcium.
Starting treatment as early as possible can have important benefits for people with arthritis, particularly inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. After carrying out a physical examination, your doctor may recommend a number of different diagnostic tests including X-rays to check for cartilage loss and bone damage, MRI, ultrasound or CT scans, and blood or joint fluid tests to identify the type of arthritis you have.
Treatments for arthritis
In addition to taking the steps outlined above to help manage your symptoms, there are many different treatments available depending on the type and severity of arthritis you have. If over-the-counter painkillers don’t provide sufficient pain relief there are prescription drugs that can relieve arthritis symptoms, as well as electronic pain relief (TENS) which administers a mild electrical current to the skin.
An occupational therapist can offer advice on ways to perform everyday activities without exacerbating your symptoms and a physiotherapist can recommend exercises to improve mobility and ease pain. In the most severe cases, you may be offered joint replacement surgery which involves replacing your damaged joint with a prosthetic implant
Contact us for advice on diagnosing and treating arthritis so you can continue to enjoy a full and active life.