Arthritis facts & FAQs

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19 March 2019

Man suffering from knee pain

Did you know that arthritis is the major cause of disability and chronic pain in Australia? Here, we answer common questions associated with the condition, along with pain-management plans.

A few things may surprise you about the well-known joint condition, arthritis. The first being that there are more than 100 forms of arthritis. “Although there are so many forms, osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and gout account for the majority of cases,” says Dr Simon Helfgott, Medical Doctor Rheumatology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston USA and member of the Best Doctors network of specialists. And while almost four million Australians suffer the condition, it’s still largely misunderstood. 

So, what is arthritis? 

“Arthritis is a term used to describe a variety of joint conditions that result in the development of joint damage,” says Dr Helfgott. The definition given by Arthritis Australia is, “A condition that affects the musculoskeletal system, specifically joints where two or more bones meet”.

Dr Helfgott explains the three major types. “OA is caused by wear and tear as the body ages, when the shock-absorbing tissue, cartilage, that lines our joints loses its water content as we age leading to the development of tiny cracks, which can cause damage to the cartilage and bone tissue. RA is often due to the immune system attacking the joints causing inflammation within them, and gout is often caused by metabolic changes in the body, where people aren’t able to fully eliminate a breakdown product of food digestion called uric acid. This raises the level of uric acid in the body, which is deposited in the joints and over time causes damage and inflammation. Arthritis can also develop following sustained injuries to a joint.” 

Does arthritis only affect the elderly? 

The short answer is no. The US Arthritis Foundation provides this surprising statistic: Nearly three out of five people with arthritis are under the age of 65. And young kids can be sufferers, too. “Children as young as two years old may develop arthritis,” says Dr Helfgott. “In these cases, it’s caused by an immune attack against their joints and other body tissues.”

But you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an ‘old person’s condition’. “As we age, many of us develop symptoms of pain and stiffness in our joints that can be attributed to OA, and since that’s the most common form of arthritis, people then believe, incorrectly, that it mainly affects the elderly,” says Dr Helfgott. 

When it comes to arthritic pain, why are some days better than others?

Along with having different pain thresholds, people may also experience pain differently due to other physical and mental reasons. “For example, people who feel depressed or anxious have been found to be more sensitive to pain,” say the experts from Arthritis Australia. But there are other factors that can cause more pain for sufferers. “Sometimes arthritis can be affected by the degree of physical activity of the individual,” says De Helfgott. “Some activity may make a joint feel better whereas excess activity could make it worse,” he adds. The weather can increase joint pain. “Some people note that changes in barometric pressure caused by storms can lead to a perception of more pain in the joints,” says Dr Helfgott.

What are some proven pain-management techniques?

The food you eat may help pain. “Eating a healthy diet that’s rich in fish, fruit, leafy vegetables and low-processed foods can help reduce inflammation in the joints,” says Dr Helfgott. And while we’d prefer to talk about nutrition with positive health benefits, it’s worth mentioning where to be cautious. A study by rheumatologists at the Sapienza University of Rome recommend “that a restricted sodium dietary intake may dampen the inflammatory response in RA patients”. If you’re wondering what a safe amount of sodium is, the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia suggest an adequate intake equates to 1.15g-2.3g salt.

Movement is good, too. According to Arthritis Australia, “Regular appropriate exercise keeps your joints moving, strengthens muscles to support your joints, reduces stress, and improves sleep.” However, it’s important you find an exercise program suited to you, so make sure you see your doctor or physiotherapist for a tailored approach.

While some small studies have shown supplements, such as turmeric, reduce inflammation, the jury’s still out. “Based on research studies, it’s not clear whether adding supplements are helpful,” says Dr Helfgott.

About Best Doctors

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