Such is its prevalence, particularly among the elderly, that you’d be forgiven for thinking of arthritis as something that creeps up on you over the years – along with grey hairs and middle-age spread.
Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce your risk and to minimise its effects if you become a sufferer.
What is arthritis?
For a start, arthritis is not a single disease, but an umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause pain and inflammation in and around the joints. It affects people of all ages, including children, and there are many types, with a range of symptoms – although the most common are pain, tenderness and stiffness around the joints; reduced movement and function; inflammation, redness and warmth; and muscle weakness around the joints.
By far the most common form is osteoarthritis, estimated to affect 8.5 million people in the UK. While usually detected in those over the age of 50, it can occur at a younger age following injury, over-exertion or as a result of another joint problem. It’s caused by wear and tear – the cartilage protecting the bones around a joint becomes thin, leaving the ends of the bone exposed. This makes movement painful as the bones rub together. Osteoarthritis is most often found in the joints of the hands, knees, hips and spine.
The second most common form – rheumatoid arthritis – is more severe but less prevalent, affecting around 400,000 people. It’s most likely to arise between the ages of 40 and 50, and is three times more common in women than men. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing inflammation and pain. Movement may be reduced and bones and cartilage broken down.
Other forms of arthritis include gout, lupus, fibromyalgia and spondylitis. While there’s no cure for arthritis, there are various treatments that can successfully slow its effects and minimise joint damage. Plus, there are some adjustments you can make to your diet and lifestyle to stay mobile and pain free. Here’s how to give your joints some TLC.
The five-step plan
1. Work with your healthcare team
There isn’t just one way to manage arthritis – you need to work out a treatment plan that best suits you. ‘You’ll need to work with your GP and monitor your symptoms in order to develop the most effective treatment plan,’ says HFG expert Dr Dawn Harper.
The plan should incorporate all aspects of your wellbeing and may involve any of a long list of healthcare professionals: rheumatologists, orthopaedic surgeons, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, orthotists, podiatrists, dietitians, nurse specialists, psychologists and chiropractors. Medication for osteoarthritis can include painkillers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.
In severe cases, surgery may be recommended. Rheumatoid arthritis patients may be given painkillers and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). ‘Don’t suffer in silence,’ says Dawn. ‘See your healthcare team regularly to make sure any medication and treatment you’re receiving is the right type and dosage for whatever symptoms you have at the time.’
2. Manage your weight
Many people with arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis, are overweight, while others may gain weight as a result of their restricted mobility. Being overweight puts extra strain on already burdened joints, especially the ankles, knees, hips, feet and spine.
‘Maintaining a healthy weight can help relieve the tension in your joints, reduce pain and maintain or improve mobility,’ says Dawn. ‘And if you’re overweight, slimming down can help slow the progression of arthritis. Talk to your GP about a diet plan to start losing weight.’
According to Arthritis Research UK, everyone can benefit from some form of exercise, even those with arthritis. Your healthcare team can help you find the type to suit you. ‘Arthritic people who exercise have higher levels of fitness, better muscle strength, a greater ability to do daily tasks and improved mood and emotional wellbeing,’ says Dawn.
Exercise also helps to maintain a healthy heart and blood vessels, and some specific exercises may help to improve bone strength. Aim for a mix of strength training, stretching and aerobic exercise.
4. Consider complementary therapies
There are many options that may lower the physical and emotional toll of arthritis, although it’s a matter of trial and error and finding a therapy you feel is worthwhile and affordable.
Some approaches known to offer relief include the Alexander technique, acupuncture, aromatherapy, wearing a copper bracelet, homeopathy, magnet therapy, relaxation, meditation and hypnosis, manipulative therapies such as chiropractic or osteopathy, wax bath therapy and herbal medicine. ‘Tell your doctor about any therapies you want to try, and continue to take your prescribed medication,’ says Dawn. Also, tell the complementary practitioner about your condition before receiving any treatment.
5. Try new ways to manage pain
Even when you do all of the above, there may still be times when you experience arthritic pain. Experiment with techniques to manage it: apply an ice pack, take a warm bath, listen to music, meditate or try deep breathing exercises. An Australian study has found psychotherapy may be an effective intervention for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
They found patients given cognitive therapy showed greater improvements in inflammation and joint tenderness than a control group who remained on a waiting list. Arthritis Research UK believes this shows the importance of psychological and emotional support for patients. If you feel you’d benefit from counselling, speak to your GP about a referral or contact the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. Talking to other people who share your symptoms and experiences may also help. See below for a list of organisations with online forums and phone services that can put you in contact with others