The Dr's Notebook - arthritis | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - November 2005

The Dr's Notebook - arthritis

What is arthritis?

The word arthritis means simply ‘inflammation of the joints’. It is estimated to affect over nine million people in the UK, and can strike at any age.There are over 200 different kinds of arthritis and it is the greatest cause of disability in the UK.

I’ve heard of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, but what’s the difference?

The difference between these two most common types of arthritis is in the way they attack the joints. In osteoarthritis, which usually affects the feet, knees, hips, spine and hands, the cartilage in the joint becomes rough, brittle and weak. To compensate for the extra strain being put on the cartilage, the bone underneath thickens and broadens out, resulting in outgrowths or ‘osteophytes’ which give the joints a knobbly appearance. This can lead to inflammation as well as occasional stiffness or swelling which can make the joint painful to move. In the worst cases, the cartilage can break away altogether leaving the bone ends to rub against each other which is incredibly painful. Osteoarthritis is more commonly found in older people and women, though it can affect anyone of any age.

In rheumatoid arthritis joint inflammation is far more common and leads to stiffness and pain. Sufferers tend to experience ‘flare-ups’ every now and again, rather than continual pain and discomfort, and unlike osteoarthritis, a flare-up may leave the patient feeling fatigued and generally unwell too. ^Rheumatoid arthritis usually starts in the wrists, hands and feet, and comes on gradually so can be difficult to diagnose.^

Is it true that cold weather can make arthritis worse?

Little research has been done on the effects of cold on arthritis, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that this may be the case. Many people, whether arthritis sufferers or not, complain of increased stiffness in the joints during cold weather, so it is likely that people with arthritis would feel this effect even more so.

What treatments are available?

The severity of the condition, the type of arthritis and the patient’s own wishes will all have an impact on how an individual’s arthritis is treated. If you think you are displaying arthritic symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP. He or she can talk to you about pain relief and advise on any lifestyle changes that might be beneficial according to your individual circumstances.

Alongside prescribed medication there are other therapies that can help relieve the pain and pressure in the joints, and complement the treatment course recommended by your GP. Physiotherapy, exercise, a good care routine for your joints — including a healthy diet — and complementary therapies such as reflexology, aromatherapy, acupuncture and homeopathy, have all been shown to have certain benefits for both the effects of the arthritis itself and the side-effects of medication. ^In severe cases, where joints are damaged or medication does not help, there are surgical options that can be explored such as joint replacement.^

Does it mean making big lifestyle changes?

Again this is assessed on an individual basis and depends on the type and severity of the condition and the life a person leads, but there are many small adaptations that can be made to the home and work environment to make things easier. For example, there is a whole range of devices available to make those once-simple daily tasks easier to perform, such as turning taps on and off, opening jars and tins, and, most importantly, pouring those soothing cups of tea! At work, employers should be happy to discuss changes in working patterns or equipment that will help people with arthritis continue working, and there are also government schemes that can give support in this area.

Fact file

  • Around one million arthritis sufferers in the UK are under 50 years of age.
  • The condition also affects around 15,00 children.
  • One in three people will have arthritis at some point in their lives.
  • Arthritis is the reason for one in five doctors’ appointments.
  • Ginger has natural anti-inflammatory properties and can be incorporated into the diet or taken as a supplement to help ease symptoms.
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