While osteo-arthritis , the most common type of arthritis, strikes more often in mid-life and beyond, it’s by no means the only kind of joint trouble. There are many different types of arthritis, and you can develop it at almost any age.
Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women and often comes on between the ages of 30 and 50, though it can start much earlier or much later, and it affects men too. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a kind of arthritis that affects the under-16s, including young babies before they’ve even learned to walk. In both rheumatoid and JIA there’s marked inflammation within the joints, which causes a lot of painful symptoms. But fortunately there are also many newer drugs that target this inflammation. They offer the best hope of halting the disease process if they’re started early on, before there’s any joint damage and deformity.
How can you tell if you have arthritis?
How can you tell if you have arthritis or just some other aches and pains? It’s more likely to be an inflammatory kind of arthritis if
• Several joints hurt
• They’re stiff in the morning for over 30 minutes
• There’s visible swelling of any of your joints
• You feel unwell or are losing weight.
It’s worth knowing about these symptoms because if you develop them you should see your GP without delay and get a speedy referral to a specialist for further assessment.
Minimise your chances of getting osteo-arthritis symptoms
Most people with joint pains don’t have rheumatoid or some other type of inflammatory arthritis. They have osteo-arthritis (OA). Sometimes described as wear-and-tear, it usually progresses more slowly and can affect just one joint. There’s often a genetic element in OA, but there’s probably chance involved too. Even so, there are ways to minimise your chances of getting OA symptoms:
>br>• Keep your weight down to what’s appropriate for your height. If you need to lose weight, shed it slowly or you’ll lose valuable muscle.
• Stay active. Moderate exercise actually protects cartilage, and it also builds up muscle, which protects joints.
• Don’t overdo exercise, especially repetitive movements that overload the joints.
• Watch your posture. Remember that strong abdominal muscles help support the spine.
• Wear the right shoes for your activities. High heels are fine from time to time, but if you always wear them you’ll increase the risk of arthritis in your feet.
• Eat a healthy diet with plenty of variety, especially protein, fruit and vegetables.
How to describe your joint pain symptoms to your doctor
If you see your doctor about joint pain, try to explain exactly what your symptoms are.
• Describing pain as “terrible” may seem accurate to you, but it’s more useful to tell your GP what you can and can’t do as a result of your pain, and what time of day your symptoms are at their worst.
• Always mention any stiffness or swelling.
• Tell your doctor if there’s a close family history of arthritis, especially rheumatoid or OA, or if you’ve had psoriasis or other rashes.
Don’t automatically expect an xray. These only show up bones, not ligaments or muscles, so they’re not always as useful if you might imagine. With neck or back pain, xrays can be very misleading because so many people have xray changes but don’t have symptoms – and vice versa. On the other hand blood tests can be very revealing, especially if rheumatoid arthritis is a possibility.
Do supplements help?
It’s no surprise that many people with chronic joint pain turn to supplements for relief, but the jury is still out on the value of most of these.
• Cod liver oil seems to have some anti-inflammatory effect so it could be worth trying.
• In trials, glucosamine has shown variable results. Most doctors now believe it doesn’t help arthritis, but it may do. If you try it, take a sizeable dose, preferably 1,500mg daily.
The important thing when taking supplements or considering any alternative therapies is not to ditch conventional medicine. See your doctor about joint pains, because it could be the type that needs prompt specialised treatment.
Perception of arthritis as an old person’s disease
It’s sad to think that there are so many people who live with various types of arthritis – 10m in the UK at the last estimate – yet so few celebs own up to the condition. That’s probably because the public still perceives arthritis as an old person’s disease. A carefully cultivated image could suffer a bit of a dent if one admits to the kind of disease people associate with The Last of the Summer Wine. I’m sure that will change in time as awareness increases. It just hasn’t happened yet.
Arthritis Care campaigns for the best possible services for people with arthritis – all 10m of them in the UK. Every year 250,000 people contact the charity to help them manage their pain. You can get more information from www.arthritiscare.org.uk . Helpline 0808 800 4050.
Carol Cooper is climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge soon to raise funds for Arthritis Care. You can help by sponsoring her. Please visit www.justgiving.co.uk/DrCarolCooper.