There are many kinds of arthritis (coming from the Greek word ‘arthron’, meaning joint, and ‘itis’, meaning ‘inflammation’), and it is important to get an accurate diagnosis so that you get the right treatment. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, and usually only affects people once they’ve hit their forties.
The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint pain and stiffness. Some people also experience swelling, tenderness and a grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joints.
It’s caused by the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones breaking down, which causes pain, swelling and problems moving the joint. Bony growths can develop and the area can become inflamed.
The severity of osteoarthritis symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and between different affected joints.
For some people, the symptoms can be mild and may come and go. Other people can experience more continuous and severe problems which make it difficult to carry out everyday activities.
Almost any joint can be affected by osteoarthritis, but the condition most often causes problems in the knees, hips and small joints of the hands.
The exact cause isn’t known, but there are several factors that appear to increase the likelihood of developing it.
Joint injury – over-using your joint when it hasn’t had enough time to heal after an injury or operation
Other conditions (secondary arthritis) – osteoarthritis can occur in joints severely damaged by a previous or existing condition
- Age – your risk of developing the condition increases as you get older
- Family history – osteoarthritis may run in families, although studies haven’t identified a single gene responsible
- Weight – being overweight excessively strains your joints, especially load-bearing ones like knees
Although osteoarthritis isn’t curable, it doesn’t have to get worse and symptoms can be alleviated, even without medication – for example losing weight, doing the right exercises (such as swimming) and using aids that reduce the strain on joints, such as ankle or knee supports. Most gyms these days now offer some sort of aqua exercise class, and because water supports your weight you’ll exercise your joints without the load.
Painkillers are available in tablet or cream form. Many are available over the counter and are extremely effective in minimising the pain. Ask your pharmacist – he or she will know the best ones, and will be able to advise when they should be taken, ie before the pain gets too bad, or perhaps before you exercise.
In very severe cases glucocorticoid drugs – or steroids – can be injected into the joints.
In the worst cases, joints can be replaced.
On its website www.arthritisresearchuk.org, the organisation Arthritis Research UK tells the story of Mel, who at 43 was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her knees and hands. Just 18 months after diagnosis, Mel’s never been fitter – and it’s simply been achieved with a healthier lifestyle.
These are Mel’s words:
“The pain in my knees was excruciating whenever I had to walk upstairs and it kept me awake at night. Luckily the consultant who diagnosed me was really positive, encouraging me to make changes myself rather than writing out a prescription for painkillers.
“Right from the start I was determined arthritis wasn’t going to beat me. I’ve seen the vicious circle you can get into with my mum, who suffers with rheumatoid arthritis. When pain makes it hard to move, you don’t move and the pain gets worse.
“I decided to exercise to keep mobile, to sleep better and stay positive. A personal trainer at the gym knew about my arthritis and created a programme of weights, stretching and resistance training I could do without hurting my knees. I started slowly, doing a little each time, stopping if anything hurt. Within weeks I was able to walk upstairs without pain.”
Mel lost weight by cutting out most unhealthy foods, and she walked more. She lost more than three stone and even runs 5k races now.
“My arthritis still gets me down. I get twinges in my knees and have stiffness and tingling in my hands, which frustrates me. But when I’m having a bad week it’s never an option not to exercise. Staying active helps massively with my mental health and with managing the pain on a bad day.
“If you want to get active but don’t know where to start, I’d say just try something, however small. Set yourself a goal to move more each day and keep it simple: you could walk to the local shop each day or do some gardening. Don’t be put off if going to the gym seems like too big a step, find a form of exercise you enjoy and keep at it.”