What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a condition that can cause pain, stiffness and inflammation in a joint. It can affect people of any age, including children and currently affects more than ten million people in the UK. There are over two hundred types of arthritis but the most common ones are osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis.
What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?
Osteoarthritis is arthritis that is associated with age. It’s also known as ‘wear and tear’ or ‘degenerative arthritis’. As we get older, the joints in the body start to show signs of wear and tear. This can cause aches and pains in the affected joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the body and this causes pain and inflammation in the joints. There are different types of inflammatory arthritis but rheumatoid arthritis is the most common. It’s not clear what causes the immune system to start attacking the body so special medication called disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDS are normally used to suppress the immune system and control the symptoms.
What are the causes of arthritis?
There are several potential contributors to arthritis. These include:
Previous injury to a joint
What are the signs and symptoms of arthritis?
Pain in the joints
Stiffness in the joints
Swelling in the joints
Fatigue (affects up to a third of people with arthritis)
Some people can feel unwell within themselves
How do you diagnose arthritis?
In the case of osteoarthritis, no special tests needed. Most of the time, the diagnosis is made based on your symptoms and other factors such as your age and lifestyle.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, special tests are required. These are normally in the form of an x-ray and/or a blood test as it’s important to rule out other conditions and check the severity of the arthritis.
Shouldn’t I have an x-ray if I have osteoarthritis?
Having an x-ray is not actually necessary for osteoarthritis. This is because x-ray findings do not always correlate to the symptoms you have. For example, someone with severe knee osteoarthritis shown on an x-ray may not have severe symptoms. Likewise, someone with severe symptoms may have only very mild osteoarthritis on an x-ray. It is quite common for there to be no correlation between x-ray results and symptoms of osteoarthritis.
I’ve been told that getting good sleep will help with my arthritic symptoms, but how do I improve my sleep quality?
Improving sleep quality can vastly improve arthritic symptoms. Ways to improve sleep include:
Improving your sleep environment – where possible, reduce the amount of noise and light in the bedroom whilst sleeping. Turn TVs off. If your alarm clock flashes or produces light, face it away from you. This is also a good idea for phone chargers or any other flashing lights that might disturb you in the night. Get black-out curtains or blinds and make sure your room is a nice cool temperature.
Avoid stimulants – avoid caffeine and alcohol before going to bed.
Exercise – regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality.
Get outdoors – spending some time outdoors during the day in natural light, for example, a lunch time walk, has also been shown to improve sleep quality.
Food – avoid eating too close to bed time, especially heavy meals.
Relaxation – daily relaxation or meditation for 2-3 minutes several times a day can help calm the mind, making it easier to ‘switch off’ before bedtime.
I have arthritis – will exercise cause more damage?
Absolutely not! Exercise will not cause you more damage if you have arthritis. It’s actually encouraged as it will help to strengthen the muscles around your joints which should help with your symptoms. It can be very easy to slide into what’s known as the ‘deconditioning cycle’ (shown below) when you have arthritis.
Some people worry that they will make their arthritis worse if they do too much activity and this can lead to a fear of movement. However, if you don't move your muscles enough, they very quickly start to weaken and this will actually make your joint pain worse. When the joints start to wear and tear, they rely on the support of the surrounding muscles to keep them stable. If the surrounding muscles start to weaken because they are not being used enough, they can't support the joint properly and this leads to more pain. This not only makes it harder to move, but can sometimes make the fear of movement worse and eventually, you get stuck into a cycle of lack of movement, leading to weakness and pain. The trick to breaking this cycle is to overcome the fear of movement. Once you overcome the fear and start to move more, the muscles will start to strengthen and support the joints more. This will allow you to move more and continue to strengthen your muscles and joints.
Is osteoarthritis the same as osteoporosis?
No, these conditions sound similar but they’re actually very different. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the joints. Osteoporosis affects the structure of the bone, making it weaker and more prone to fracture. Both men and women can suffer from osteoporosis but it is more common in women, especially after menopausal age.
My mum has had both of her knees replaced. Does this mean I will have to have mine done when I get older?
No, not necessarily. Just because a parent has osteoarthritis or has had a joint replacement, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have one too. Joint replacement is a procedure done purely do ease pain symptoms. If you know that there are people in your family who have got arthritis or have had joint replacements, it is a good idea to start your self-management now, so that when you get older, your body will be able to better cope with the ageing process.
Is there a cure for arthritis?
Unfortunately there is no cure for arthritis. There are however plenty of management options to help with the symptoms. Management depends on the type of arthritis you have. Management options are best started as soon as possible and include:
Improve sleep quality
Manual therapy – osteopathy, physiotherapy etc.
Surgery – usually a last resort but can be useful if arthritic pain is severe and affecting your quality of life
I think I have arthritis, what should I do?
If you think you have arthritis, make an appointment to see your GP. It is also handy to make notes before your appointment to take with you in case you forget to mention something. Handy notes include:
What hurts and when?
What makes it worse and what makes it better?
What is your worst problem?
What are you worried about?
Don’t forgot you can take someone with you and write things down so you don’t forget what the GP has said. Your GP is there to help so ask questions if you don’t understand something.
If you suffer with arthritis, remember the pain doesn’t have to get worse and worse. There are plenty of things that can help. Check out Arthritis Action, which are a great charity helping those with arthritic symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms of arthritis can be unpredictable so stay prepared – always carry your medication if you need it. And don’t forget to tell others about your condition so that if you are having a bad day, they understand why and can support you.