Osteoarthritis the good news

24 September 2012

Osteoarthritis is a joint condition that is estimated to affect 1 in 3 adults aged over 45* in the UK. It can affect any joint in the body, but is most common in the main weight-bearing joints and those we use the most, such as the knees, hips, hands and wrists. Symptoms include pain - which can be debilitating, swelling, stiffness and sometimes a grating noise from the joint when you move it.

Exactly what causes osteoarthritis isn't clear but there are a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing it. Versus Arthritis.org lists the following risk factors for osteoarthritis:

  • Age - osteoarthritus usually develops after the age of 45
  • Gender - 60% of all sufferers are women and their symptoms are usually more severe
  • Being overweight - is a key factor because of the increased pressure on your weight-bearing joints
  • Previous injury or childhood joint problems can increase the risk of developing osteoperosis and cause it to develop earlier
  • Hard repetitive activity - normal wear and tear doesn't cause osteoarthritis but a activity that's particularly physically demanding over a prolonged period of time can lincrease your risk of developing osteoarthritis
  • Family history of osteoarthritis.

The good news when it comes to osteoarthritis is there's plenty we can do to ensure our quality of life isn't compromised.

The medical profession has changed its thinking in recent years, and now focuses on self-management. This means doing 'what you can to preserve function and mobility of joints, like regular exercise, controlling body weight and treating injuries as and when they occur,' explains our Lead Physiotherapist, Jan Vickery.

Osteoarthritis can occur in the fingers, knees, toes, hips, base of thumb and spine, but as it takes a long time to develop, there is plenty of time to be proactive. It involves the loss of cartilage, the protective surface over the end of the bone, so that joints become swollen and painful.

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an auto-immune disease. It also causes swelling, pain and stiffness in the joints, and can be managed well with drugs when caught early. Standard treatment is to manage pain with paracetamol and codeine, and reduce inflammation with NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

If this isn't working, doctors have the option to refer patients to a rheumatologist and/or a physiotherapist. Usually other drugs for rheumatoid arthritis are then prescribed, such as low dose steroids, hydroxychloroquine. or disease modifiying drugs such as methotrexate, leflunomide and sulphasalazine. New biologic drugs, such as anti-TNF, are even more potent and precise at targeting the disease.

A controlled exercise programme can help to control symptoms. A physiotherapist may offer manipulation and stretching, and pain relief. 'We want people to be empowered, so they can go away and be able to cope if they have a flare up. For instance, icing the joint, if it flares up helps to bring down swelling.' Osteoarthritis can cause a vicious circle, particularly among the elderly. So, how can we help ourselves?

Self help tips for managing osteoarthritis

Rule one: lose weight

"Losing weight is crucial," says Jan.

"Exercise, weight loss and wearing the right shoes can keep a patient off drugs and injections and prevent surgery. A recent article in Arthritis Today explains, "Research shows losing as little as 11 pounds may improve joint health and cut the risk of osteoarthritis of the knee by 50 per cent."

Rule two: exercise

"There's been much more emphasis on movement and muscle building to alleviate the effects of arthritis in the last 40 years," says Jan.

"Building up muscle strength improves the function of the joint and retrains it in balance awareness."

"Exercise slows down the effect of deterioration in joints due to ageing. Try low impact exercises such as cycling or rowing exercises. Exercising in water is an excellent option as your bouyancy takes stress and weight off your joints."

In fact, hydrotherapy has become a common form of treatment for arthritis.

"The warm water in a hydrotherapy pool soothes muscles and enables people to do exercise they couldn't do on dry land."

Rule 3: Get moving

If exercising in a gym isn’t your thing then try dancing (especially if it involves moving your arms and hands) t'ai chi, yoga or even knitting … any activity that helps with dexterity, balance, firms up muscles, eases stress, and keeps the body supple helps.

To supplement or not to supplement...

Many people with osteoarthritis, or those who have a few early twinges, try supplements, such as glucosamine with chondoitrin, green lipped mussel, fish oils, and rosehip. Evidence is mixed - with glucosamine some trials say it is helpful, and others claim it is not - while people who take them also report different results.

Jan admits, "There is evidence that such as rosehip and omega-3 fish oils may help pain, and glucosamine might slow down progress of osteoarthritis."

Replacing joints may be a final option if arthritis is disabling, but according to Jan, "Alongside someone not being able to function normally, especially in activities of daily living such as washing, dressing and being able to move around, there has to be X-ray evidence of severe joint degenration to justify a joint replacement. Whenever a joint still has life in it, we try to keep it going."

Suggestions for easing the pain of arthritis have been passed down from generation to generation. Evidence tends to be anecdotal, but you may want to give some of the following a try:

  • Some acidic foods appear to make symptoms worse but this varies according to individuals - red meat, tomatoes, potatoes, citrus fruit, red wine, aubergines and strawberries have been cited
  • Good news foods cited are turmeric, ginger (considered warming in Chinese medicine), olives, green tea and grapes
  • Cider vinegar with (or without) a teaspoonful of honey in warm water each morning is said to be very helpful for easing symptoms
  • Soaking in a hot bath is soothing, but even better with Epsom salts which may release toxins from the body through the skin
  • Copper or magnet bracelets have a positive effect on some people, but others say they do nothing.