Around 10m people in the UK have arthritis, according to figures from the NHS.
There are many different types of arthritis, but common symptoms include pain, swelling and restricted movements in the affected joints.
With so many people living with the condition, it’s perhaps no surprise that many misconceptions about treatment and prevention have cropped up. From cold weather aggravating arthritis to chilli peppers helping with the pain, there are some interesting and ingenious theories.
Here, our lead physiotherapist, Jan Vickery, digs beneath seven of the most common myths to decipher whether they are fact or fiction.
- ‘I have arthritis and there’s nothing I can do about it’
While there is no cure yet for osteoarthritis – the most common type of arthritis that occurs when the cartilage that protects the end of your bones breaks down – there are some simple ways to reduce pain and improve mobility. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including exercising, being a healthy weight and having a good diet
- Complementary or alternative therapies, such as acupuncture. Many people find these helpful, although the NHS notes there is a lack of evidence to prove they are effective
- Joint supports, such as splints, insoles in your shoes or leg braces
- Hydrotherapy has been shown to improve strength and general fitness of those with arthritis.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis – where your immune system attacks the cells in your joints – new treatments, such as anti-TNF therapy, have been developed through research funded by Arthritis Research UK. In the early 2000s they developed new drugs – known as biological therapies – that target the molecule in the body (tumour necrosis factor – or TNF) that causes joint damage and inflammation.
- ‘Damp, cold weather affects my joint pain’
Many people are convinced that damp, cold weather exacerbates symptoms of arthritis.
This is yet to be proven, but researchers have turned to citizen science to see if they can get to the bottom of it. In 2016, the University of Manchester, funded by Arthritis Research UK, launched a huge project to investigate the association. Throughout 2016, they asked anyone over the age of 17 who has arthritis or chronic pain to download their smartphone app, Cloudy with a chance of pain. This allows people to record how they are feeling and collects local weather data via GPS. The data will be used to finally decide if those rain clouds give people with arthritis more reason than most to be glum.
- ‘Chillies help my joint pain’
Amazingly, this is true. Capsaicin, a medicinally active component of chillies, is licensed in the UK for osteoarthritis.
Capsaicin is available on prescription in the form of gels, creams and plasters. It is usually used to treat osteoarthritis in your hands or knees.
It mainly works by blocking the nerves in the affected area sending pain signals to your brain.
It can take a while for you to feel the effects of capsaicin cream – it’s usually around 2 weeks before you start to see a difference and around a month until you get the full relief.
- ‘Hobbies such as knitting and gardening make my arthritis worse’
Keeping up interests and hobbies is a great way to maintain self-esteem and confidence, which can be critical to help you live with arthritis pain.
No scientific research exists to suggest knitting or gardening make arthritis worse. If either increases your pain, then it might be worth adapting the activity to avoid straining particular joints. You can make many modifications to your gardening, for example, long handled tools, such as trowels, can help you avoid bending too much, as can planting in high containers rather than at ground level.
- ‘I can’t wear high heels if I have arthritis’
It’s true that high heels can aggravate your arthritis as they place more pressure on your foot, ankle and knee joints.
But the good news is that Arthritis Research UK has funded research on the impact high heels have. They even got together women with rheumatoid arthritis, shoe designers and whole rake of experts to try and design shoes that look good but are also supportive.
Here are some great tips for looking after your feet and preventing aches and pains caused by footwear.
- ‘I have arthritis so my children will get it’
Most forms of arthritis are not totally down to genetics – it’s more of a combination of genetic and environmental factors that put you at risk.
For example, family history may play some role in osteoarthritis but studies have not yet found which gene causes this. Likewise, rheumatoid arthritis is thought to run in families but the risk of inheriting the condition is low.
If you have arthritis as a consequence of a condition, such as Stickler syndrome, then it may be that the condition could be inherited.
- ‘Exercise will make my arthritis worse’
If your arthritis is painful, it’s understandable that you might not want to exercise. Regular activity, however, is a really important way to manage the condition. It can help by:
- Building muscle
- Strengthening the joints
- Reducing pain and stiffness
- Improving joint mobility
- Giving your mood and energy a boost
- Keeping your weight at a healthy level to reduce pressure on your joints
- Improving posture.
The important thing is that you do the right type of exercise. Low-impact exercise, such as swimming and walking, are good options. Your physiotherapist should be able to advise you on the types and amount of exercise that will suit you.