Managing Arthritis

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition where your joints become stiff, painful and inflamed. This can cause permanent joint changes. It’s one of the most common causes of disability in the UK. Developing arthritis can be gradual or sudden, and can happen at any age. However, it most often occurs in those aged 45 and older.

Are there different types?

“Arthritis” is actually not a single condition, but instead an informal way to classify joint pain or disease. There are over 100 different types. The most common two forms are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where your immune system mistakenly attacks the cells lining your joints. This damages your joints, cartilage and even nearby bone. With rheumatoid arthritis it’s common to have ‘flare ups’, referring to periods when your symptoms become worse. 

Osteoarthritis is a disease where your joints degenerate, as the cartilage lining surrounding it becomes thinner and rougher. It’s also known as “degenerative arthritis”. This can cause ‘osteophytes’, bony lumps that grow on your joints. Your bones may then rub directly together, change shape or be pushed out of their usual position. This is the most common form in the UK, which affects around 9 million people. 

It also may develop as a result of another issue, for example, with psoriatic arthritis. This develops in some people with psoriasis, potentially leading to permanent damage and surgery if it’s not diagnosed and treated early on.

Other linked issues include IBD as ⅕ of those with Crohn’s or Colitis suffer with enteropathic arthritis- as well as fibromyalgia, gout and lupus. 

Lastly, another common grouping is known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), referring to most types in children. This includes inflammation in one or more joints, typically for over 6 weeks. There are over 15,000 children suffering with arthritis in the UK.

What are the symptoms of Arthritis?

Senior woman suffering from arthritis pain in hand at home

As there are so many different types, its symptoms depend on the type you have. However, the most common symptoms for this group of conditions are:

  • Tender, stiff and painful joints
  • Warm red skin around your joints
  • Restricted joint movement
  • Joint inflammation
  • Weakness 
  • Muscle wasting

Many sufferers of arthritis also suffer from insomnia, as they are woken by pain in the night. As there are so many different types, it’s important to go to your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. It’s also important so you can get the most relevant treatment for your symptoms.

What are the causes of Arthritis?

As there are so many types, the causes depend on the type you suffer from. Often, the exact cause is unknown.

There are, however, some common risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is thought to be affected by joint injury, age, family history, and other conditions. Severe damage from an existing condition such as gout and even rheumatoid arthritis produces what’s known as secondary arthritis. It’s also more common for women to develop osteoarthritis, as opposed to men. 

We also don’t know what causes Rheumatoid arthritis. It’s thought that smoking can increase your chances of developing it, as well as your genes- but it’s likely that this plays a small role. Just like with osteoarthritis, women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

How do you get a diagnosis?

You should talk to your GP if you’re concerned about your joint pain. It’s better to get it checked out sooner than later, as early treatment can greatly help many types.

When diagnosing arthritis, your doctor will consider your symptoms and medical history, examine your joints, take a blood test and possibly an x-ray.

This is the best way to see what’s actually going on inside your body, especially as there are so many different reasons for joint pain. Blood tests for specific substances can indicate certain types of arthritis. For example, certain inflammatory markers in your blood can help to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis. X-rays can also help doctors to see areas where cartilage and bone has been damaged. 

For certain forms, your doctor may also perform an imaging test such as an MRI or ultrasound. For some rarer forms you may have to draw joint fluid, or undergo a skin or muscle biopsy. This means removing a small sample for analysis, to rule out other conditions.

How do you treat it?

Unfortunately, there is no cure. It’s common to treat arthritis pain with over the counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol or natural alternatives.

You might also try certain medicines, physiotherapy and surgery. Some people may try complementary therapies on top of their plan with their doctor. This may involve acupuncture, osteopathy, massage or a chiropractor. 

For osteoarthritis, doctors may suggest lifestyle changes such as exercise, specialised footwear, devices to limit joint strain and losing weight if you’re overweight.

With rheumatoid arthritis, treatments often aim to reduce inflammation and slow down damage. This may include medicines such as DMARDs, JAK inhibitors, NSAIDs and steroids. In serious cases, joint replacements may be required- such as in your hip, knee or shoulder.

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