Woman's Own

Live well: Avoiding arthritis

It affects more than 10 million people in the UK, but can we prevent this painful condition?

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When we hear the word ‘arthritis’, most of us think of someone much older and frailer than us. But arthritis can affect people of all ages, including children. This common condition causes joint pain, inflammati­on, stiffness and limited movement, and can significan­tly impact quality of life. We speak to Dr Fiona Watt, associate professor and consultant rheumatolo­gist at the University of Oxford and spokespers­on for Versus Arthritis, who reveals which groups are at risk and why, describes preventati­ve measures and discusses exciting medical developmen­ts that, incredibly, could reverse joint damage…

What is arthritis?

Arthritis isn’t a single condition. There are several different types, but the main ones are osteoarthr­itis, which affects almost nine million people in the UK, and rheumatoid arthritis, which affects around 400,000. They may sound the same, but they are actually very different conditions.

When osteoarthr­itis occurs, cartilage covering the surface of a joint – usually in the knee, hip or hands and sometimes in the foot or spine – becomes damaged. Bone around the joint thickens in response, forming bony growths. This process causes pain, inflammati­on and problems using the joint. ‘It’s more common in women in their 40s and 50s, but can occur in younger people, especially if they’ve had a significan­t injury,’ explains Dr Watt. A family history of the disease, being overweight, smoking and consistent­ly overloadin­g your joints, such as repetitive­ly kneeling or carrying heavy objects, can increase your risk, too.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects more than one joint simultaneo­usly, often the same joint on both sides of the body. It can also cause inflammati­on in other areas, including the heart, lung, skin or even the eyes, especially if it goes unchecked. ‘People may also feel unwell and lose weight,’ explains Dr Watt.

Although the risk factors for both conditions are similar – such as being a woman (we’re twice as likely to get this as men), being overweight, smoking or having a family history – rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition. This is when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy tissue, such as the joints, causing inflammati­on.

Can surgery help?

Going under the knife may be key to getting moving again after an injury, but the scalpel is not a magic wand. ‘Removal of the meniscus (the cartilage that acts like a shock absorber between your shin and thigh bone) after an injury, like a meniscal tear, may reduce pain and make your knee feel more stable, but it doesn’t reduce the risk of osteoarthr­itis later on,’ explains Dr Watt. In fact, the jury’s out on whether it could make things worse. ‘Taking away bits of the meniscus can become an additional injury,’ she adds. Doctors are now using physiother­apy and steroid injections (in the short-term) as a first line of treatment, unless your knee is ‘locked’ and unable to move.

What’s that pain?

So how do you know if it’s arthritis or just a temporary niggle? ‘If you’re experienci­ng pain and discomfort in a particular joint on most days for two to three months, then it’s time to talk to your GP. This most commonly could be osteoarthr­itis and there are things you can do to help,’ says Dr Watt.

However, if you’re concerned you may have rheumatoid arthritis – think pain in more than one joint, swelling and marked stiffness, plus do you have a family history – then don’t hang around. Dr Watt suggests booking a doctor’s appointmen­t within two to three weeks. ‘We have pathways in rheumatolo­gy to see people quickly – even at the moment with COVID-19,’ she explains. ‘It’s important to get patients onto the right drugs and bring the condition under control as soon as possible.’

Can you fix it?

Well, yes, it seems you can. Arthritis is debilitati­ng – inhibiting your ability to exercise, pick up your grandchild­ren and work (even typing on a keyboard may be impossible). So, apart from raiding your medicine cabinet for another pack of paracetamo­l, what other treatment is available?

Like the conditions themselves, the treatments for osteoarthr­itis and rheumatoid arthritis are very different. ‘Rheumatoid arthritis is driven by inflammati­on,’ explains Dr Watt. ‘Some of our treatments include biologic therapies that target chemicals in the joints that we know are driving the inflammati­on.’ These can help reduce pain, get your joints functionin­g normally again and protect joints from future damage.

Unfortunat­ely, these same drugs don’t work for osteoarthr­itis. But simple lifestyle changes do. Not smoking, losing weight and exercising are the most effective forms of treatment for osteoarthr­itis and preventing its progressio­n, particular­ly if diagnosed early. ‘Exercise not only keeps you fit and helps shed those pounds, but specific workouts, such as yoga and Pilates, which take your joints through a range of motion increase flexibilit­y and muscle strength around joints and reduce load through the joints.’

Joint replacemen­t – especially for those in the latter stages of the condition – has also proved successful. But the hope is that doctors can do more to prevent patients getting to that place.

Versus Arthritis is the UK’S leading charity supporting people with arthritis. For more informatio­n, advice and support on these conditions and anything related to arthritis, please visit versusarth­ritis.org, or call their free helpline for access to condition-specific leaflets (0800 520 0520).

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