The number of people affected by osteoarthritis is set to double to over 17 million by 2030, according to a report commissioned by the charity Arthritis Care.
Judith Brodie, CEO of Arthritis Care, said: “We need policy-makers and professionals to take the condition seriously; to implement robust and meaningful strategies to address how OA is treated and managed across the UK and to improve health services.”
There are more than 100 different types of arthritis but all cause painful joints and should be taken seriously.
Walking, writing a shopping list, or putting the lead on your dog are things you would expect to be able to do without pain. But it is often these routine and seemingly innocuous types of activities that become excruciating and frustrating when you have arthritis.
What is arthritis?
Sometimes mistakenly dismissed as an ‘old woman’s problem’, arthritis can and does affect people of any age or gender. So pervasive is the disease, in fact, that it even affects whales and dolphins – and dinosaur fossils have been found displaying signs of arthritis. The inflammation in your joints, which characterises arthritis, causing painful swelling and stiffness, can be caused by any one of more than 100 diseases. The most common forms of arthritis, however, are osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and gout.
Osteoarthritis affects your cartilage, the protective tissue on the ends of your bones that allows them to move smoothly against one another at your joints. Imagine that cartilage is the cushioned sole of a shoe – over time, it can become worn, flatter and less protective than it once was. This could cause the cartilage to break down. But scientists aren’t entirely sure why the cartilage degenerates in some people and not in others. What is certain, however, is that it affects huge numbers and costs the UK economy over 7 billion each year: “More than eight million people in the UK have osteoarthritis,” says Rachel Haynes, of Arthritis Care). “And although science hasn’t been able to reveal the exact cause, there are several factors that increase your risk of developing it.”
Age Although osteoarthritis can affect people of any age, including children, the majority (about 70%) of people over the age of 65 will have some level of OA, some worse than others.
Gender “OA is more common and often more severe in women, especially in the knees and hands,” says Haynes. Researchers are uncertain why this is, but it could be related to hormone levels or repetitive use of certain joints.
Overuse Repetitive movements can be a precursor to OA in that location; if your job involved a lot of kneeling, for example, it’s more likely you would get OA in your knees.
Overweight Because extra weight applies more pressure to your joints, people who are overweight are more prone to OA in their weight bearing joints, such as hips and knees.
Injury Damage to a joint that may seem to have completely healed can reappear as OA much later in life.
Genes If there’s a history of OA in your family, it’s more likely that you will also develop it.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is far less common than osteoarthritis,” says Haynes. “But even so, each year 12,000 cases of the disease are newly diagnosed.” It’s the result of an autoimmune problem, which is thought to be at least partly hereditary, making you prone to bacteria or virus that trigger the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Your immune system breaks down and turns against itself, attacking your body’s tissues. Unlike OA, which usually begins in one joint, rheumatoid arthritis affects two joints symmetrically (both your knees, for example); rheumatoid arthritis also causes swelling and heat in the affected joint, osteoarthritis doesn’t; rheumatoid arthritis also affects internal organs, osteoarthritis does not.
Gout – the third most common type of arthritis – is caused by a build-up of uric acid in the body. This acid, which enters your body via food, usually dissolves in the blood and is removed via the kidneys and urine. But it can build up to dangerous levels if your kidneys aren’t functioning properly, or if your diet includes large amounts of liver, dried beans and peas as these raise uric acid levels. The acid causes crystal deposits to form in joints – often the big toe, where blood is less well circulated – which leads to intense pain, as well as swelling, redness and heat. It can also cause kidney stones. Men are far more likely to suffer with gout, and several factors increase your risk further, including genetics, being overweight, and alcohol abuse. And some medication – diuretics or aspirin, for example – can also exacerbate the problem.
Ignoring arthritis won’t make it go away, but dealing with it can improve your symptoms and prevent further degeneration in the joints. The first step to feeling better is to ascertain which type of arthritis you have. And although some treatments can be used to treat osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or gout, your GP will try to tailor your medication and lifestyle advice to the type of arthritis you have.
Left untreated, arthritis will be more than painful, it could end up restricting your mobility. “Lack of movement, caused by the pain or stiffness of the joint affected by the arthritis, can lead to loss of strength or grip, which in turn can make moving even more difficult,” says Haynes. “But for some people, the pain or stiffness comes and goes – some days are better than others. That’s why it’s so important to learn more about your condition and find ways to make living with it more manageable.”
If your OA is severe and the cartilage degenerates completely, your bones may begin to rub against each other causing extreme pain. Going back to the cushioned sole analogy, if you fail to replace or bolster the sole, you could end up with calluses on the bottom of your foot; similarly, with your joints, if you ignore the signs of arthritis it could cause further complications in the form of osteophytes. Osteophytes are small growths that form on your bones. And, just like calluses on your toes or heels, these bone growths make any movement even more painful.