Top 8 Frequently Asked Questions On Arthritis
Did you know that over 10 million people in the UK are living with arthritis or another chronic pain condition which affects the joints? It’s no secret that arthritis can be a really difficult thing to live with, and whether you’ve been newly diagnosed or are looking for more information about your diagnosis it’s likely you may have questions about what arthritis is and how to manage the condition. We asked Dr Wendy Holden, Honorary Consultant Rheumatologist and Arthritis Action’s Medical Advisor, to answer these frequently asked questions about arthritis.
1. What is arthritis?
The word ‘arthritis’ means ‘inflammation in the joints’. Inflammation is a difficult thing to imagine and describe, but it is part of the body’s normal healing process, just like the healing of a cut or a bruise. Inflammation can be thought of as being like a bruise with swelling on the inside of the joints, and this can cause pain and stiffness. It is the most common cause of disability in the UK and can affect people of all ages, not just older people.
2. What causes arthritis?
There is no one ‘cause’ for arthritis, as there are so many different types that can affect a person. However, there are a number of important factors which can help reduce the risk of arthritis. Osteoarthritis, especially osteoarthritis of the knees and hips, is more common and causes more pain in people who are overweight. Drinking excessive alcohol can trigger an attack of gout, another form of arthritis. Smoking is more common in people who develop rheumatoid arthritis.
3. What are the main symptoms of arthritis?
One of the main symptoms of arthritis is pain and stiffness of the affected joint. The pain felt differs hugely from person to person, and can come and go at different times.
The reason for this pain and stiffness depends on the type of arthritis causing it. In osteoarthritis, the body is attempting to repair itself, forming a new bone which grinds painfully against your body. For people with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints, causing swelling, pain and stiffness. Gout, meanwhile, is caused by crystals of uric acid irritating the joints.
4. What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?
Osteoarthritis affects many of us as we get older and used to be called ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, although we now know that rather than the joints wearing out, osteoarthritis is actually a process where the joints try to repair or regenerate themselves. Unfortunately, when this happens, the process can cause pain, stiffness and swelling. However, this can often settle down with time. Osteoarthritis is common in the hips, knees, neck, lower back, thumbs and finger joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition where the immune system attacks the joints causing pain, stiffness and swelling. If not treated, it can cause joint damage and disability.
5. Is there anything you can do to avoid getting arthritis?
Some types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, can run in families, while having an injury to a joint, for example a sporting injury or broken bone can increase the risk of osteoarthritis in later life. There is nothing that you can do to completely avoid getting arthritis, but lifestyle choices can really help. Smoking increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and can make medicines for arthritis less effective. Being overweight significantly increases the risk of osteoarthritis - especially in the hips, knees and feet - and makes drugs for rheumatoid arthritis less effective. Drinking excess alcohol can trigger attacks of gout.
Many people worry that hard work or exercise can cause arthritis, but this is definitely not the case. Exercise doesn't damage the joints and in fact is one of the most important things that you can do to help with the pain and stiffness of arthritis.
6. What lifestyle changes can help improve joint pain?
The two most important are to keep moving and to keep to a healthy weight. If you are inactive, start to move more. For example, just walk up and down stairs a few more times every day, and set low goals that you can easily achieve. If you are already active, move more - ideally 30 minutes of moderate activity every day - for example by walking, although any activity such as gardening is fine. This should be combined with some form of strength training such as weights or exercise against resistance twice a week, plus weekly flexibility and balance training, like yoga or Tai Chi.
To keep to a healthy weight, try to avoid thinking of yourself as being on a diet as most diets that are too restrictive are destined to fail in the long run. Instead think more about healthy eating and putting healthy foods inside your body; eat more fruit, vegetables and grains to fill you up, and try to eat less sugar. Work on your sleep by trying to avoid alcohol on some days as well as reducing caffeine, and keep your bedroom cool and dark without interruptions from a television. Manage your worries and low mood with exercise (especially outdoors), positive thinking, meditation or distraction with an absorbing hobby.
7. Should you exercise and stay active if you have arthritis?
Staying active is essential for people living with arthritis. A lack of exercise leads to weaker muscles that are less able to support the joints, resulting in pain and instability. Simple exercises to improve muscle strength can be just as effective for pain as prescription painkillers. These can also help improve balance and function, keeping people independent and sometimes delaying the need for surgery for much longer.
8. Can any over the counter ibuprofen ease arthritis symptoms?
Yes, most anti-inflammatory medicines (also called Non-steroidal Anti Inflammatories or NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are very effective at helping ease the pain and stiffness of arthritis. The problem is that they have many potential long-term side-effects including stomach irritation, pain and ulcers, kidney problems, high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, so they are not considered safe for long-term use. All anti-inflammatory medicines should be used at the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time.
If you are looking for a drug-free alternative to osteoarthritis, FlexiSEQ is clinically proven and widely available online and in stores.
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