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What you need to know about arthritis

Siski Green / 10 June 2015

Find out what arthritis is, the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis and ways to help you live with it.

Woman with arthritic pain in her hands
So pervasive is arthritis, in fact, that it even affects whales and dolphins – and dinosaur fossils have been found displaying signs of arthritis.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis but all cause painful joints and should be taken seriously.

Walking, writing a shopping list, or putting the lead on your dog are things you would expect to be able to do without pain. But it is often these routine and seemingly innocuous types of activities that become excruciating and frustrating when you have arthritis.

What is arthritis?

Sometimes mistakenly dismissed as an 'old woman's problem', arthritis can and does affect people of any age or gender. So pervasive is the disease, in fact, that it even affects whales and dolphins – and dinosaur fossils have been found displaying signs of arthritis. 

The inflammation in your joints, which characterises arthritis, causing painful swelling and stiffness, can be caused by any one of more than 100 diseases. The most common forms of arthritis, however, are:

Learn more about inflammation and its effects on your health

Risk factors for arthritis

Age Although osteoarthritis can affect people of any age, including children, the majority (about 70%) of people over the age of 65 will have some level of OA, some worse than others.

Gender "OA is more common and often more severe in women, especially in the knees and hands," says Haynes. Researchers are uncertain why this is, but it could be related to hormone levels or repetitive use of certain joints.

Overuse Repetitive movements can be a precursor to OA in that location; if your job involved a lot of kneeling, for example, it's more likely you would get OA in your knees.

Overweight Because extra weight applies more pressure to your joints, people who are overweight are more prone to OA in their weight bearing joints, such as hips and knees.

Injury Damage to a joint that may seem to have completely healed can reappear as OA much later in life.

Genes If there's a history of OA in your family, it's more likely that you will also develop it.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis affects your cartilage, the protective tissue on the ends of your bones that allows them to move smoothly against one another at your joints. Imagine that cartilage is the cushioned sole of a shoe – over time, it can become worn, flatter and less protective than it once was. This could cause the cartilage to break down. 

Scientists aren't entirely sure why the cartilage degenerates in some people and not in others. What is certain, however, is that it affects huge numbers and costs the UK economy over 7 billion each year: "More than eight million people in the UK have osteoarthritis," says Rachel Haynes, of Arthritis Care). "And although science hasn't been able to reveal the exact cause, there are several factors that increase your risk of developing it."

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

"Rheumatoid arthritis is far less common than osteoarthritis," says Haynes. "But even so, each year 12,000 cases of the disease are newly diagnosed."

It's the result of an autoimmune problem,which is thought to be at least partly hereditary, making you prone to bacteria or virus that trigger the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Your immune system breaks down and turns against itself, attacking your body's tissues. 

Unlike OA, which usually begins in one joint, rheumatoid arthritis affects two joints symmetrically (both your knees, for example); rheumatoid arthritis also causes swelling and heat in the affected joint, osteoarthritis doesn't; rheumatoid arthritis also affects internal organs, osteoarthritis does not.

Learn more about rheumatoid arthritis

What is gout?

Gout - the third most common type of arthritis - is caused by a build-up of uric acid in the body. This acid, which enters your body via food, usually dissolves in the blood and is removed via the kidneys and urine. But it can build up to dangerous levels if your kidneys aren't functioning properly, or if your diet includes large amounts of liver, dried beans and peas as these raise uric acid levels. 

Uric acid causes crystal deposits to form in joints – often the big toe, where blood is less well circulated – which leads to intense pain, as well as swelling, redness and heat. It can also cause kidney stones. 

Men are far more likely to suffer with gout, and several factors increase your risk further, including genetics, being overweight, and alcohol abuse. And some medication – diuretics or aspirin, for example – can also exacerbate the problem.

Treating arthritis

Ignoring arthritis won't make it go away, but dealing with it can improve your symptoms and prevent further degeneration in the joints. The first step to feeling better is to ascertain which type of arthritis you have. And although some treatments can be used to treat osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or gout, your GP will try to tailor your medication and lifestyle advice to the type of arthritis you have.

Left untreated, arthritis will be more than painful, it could end up restricting your mobility. "Lack of movement, caused by the pain or stiffness of the joint affected by the arthritis, can lead to loss of strength or grip, which in turn can make moving even more difficult," says Haynes. "But for some people, the pain or stiffness comes and goes – some days are better than others. That's why it's so important to learn more about your condition and find ways to make living with it more manageable."

If your OA is severe and the cartilage degenerates completely, your bones may begin to rub against each other causing extreme pain. Going back to the cushioned sole analogy, if you fail to replace or bolster the sole, you could end up with calluses on the bottom of your foot; similarly, with your joints, if you ignore the signs of arthritis it could cause further complications in the form of osteophytes. Osteophytes are small growths that form on your bones. And, just like calluses on your toes or heels, these bone growths make any movement even more painful.

Learn self-help tips for rheumatoid arthritis

The to-do list for arthritis

Be body aware If you have joint pain, stiffness or swelling for more than two weeks, see your GP.

Why do your joints ache? Find out more

Lift weights Strong muscles help support your joints, which means less pressure on them. But you need to work your entire body for the best results: "If one muscle that supports a joint is contracting too much or too little for the other connecting muscles, it can pull or twist the joint, possibly causing damage to the cartilage," says Tim Allardyce, of Croydon Physiotherapy Osteopathy and Sports Injury Clinic.

Discover our home muscle-strengthening programme

Take it easy after injury "If you do damage a joint, protect it afterwards," says Allardyce. "Wear a brace or support to help prevent further injury and do muscle-specific exercises to maximise strength in that part of your body."

Weight control Piling on the pounds puts excess pressure on your joints causing damage. Stick to a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Tips for living with arthritis

Target the joint Exercising the affected area can provide long-term pain relief. Being inactive will weaken your muscles, putting the joint under increased pressure and making your arthritis worse.

Eat fish Cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel contain oils – omega 3s – that have been shown to reduce joint inflammation. If you don't eat fish, munch on walnuts or flaxseeds, which also contain the oil.

Read 10 reasons to eat more fish

Move it Gentle movements that stretch your muscles can help alleviate pain. Swimming and cycling are good ways to exercise without putting extra pressure on your joints.

Warm up A warm shower can help reduce the sensation of arthritis. A regular session in the sauna also helps.

See to your core Keeping your larger core muscles - abdominals and back - in good shape helps relieve the workload of other muscles in your body. Do regular exercises that target those muscles too.

Learn some core muscle-strengthening exercises

Spice up your life A small-scale study at the University of Miami Medical School found that ginger supplements helped reduce pain in arthritis sufferers. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory and with minimal side effects. If you are on blood thinning medication, however, see your GP before you take a supplement as it may affect their efficacy.

Learn more about the health benefits of ginger

Consider medication Talk to your GP about your options — he or she may suggest a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (ibuprofen or naproxen sodium), or a corticosteroid (prednisone, for example).

Test supplements While many arthritis sufferers find that glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate dramatically improve their condition, studies have produced mixed results. The largest study to date, the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial, showed that these two dietary supplements were no more effective than a placebo at slowing the degeneration of cartilage in the knee joint. If, however, you feel they improve your symptoms, there's no harm in taking them.

Pick up the phone Arthritis Care's helpline (0808 800 4050) or website can support you and provide advice.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.