Arthritis is an umbrella term for over one hundred musculoskeletal conditions that affect the joints. These conditions often cause inflammation and pain, making it difficult to move or carry out regular activities. Although as many as 10 million people of all ages have arthritis in the UK[i], it is often misunderstood.
To help you understand this condition and support yourself or a loved one, this article will explain what causes arthritis, how the disease can affect someone’s life, and how it can be treated.
In this article, we will discuss:
- What is arthritis?
- Types of arthritis?
- Risk factors
- How does arthritis affect someone’s life?
- How to limit the risks
What is arthritis?
Although arthritis is a common condition, people are often misinformed about the condition. The word arthritis specifically means ‘inflammation of the joints.’ A joint is where two bones meet and allow movement. Arthritis is caused by swelling of a joint or joints, resulting in pain and restricted movement.
However, the term is a collective name for several different joint pains and diseases. There are more than one hundred forms of arthritis, however, their symptoms all include pain and inflammation of the joints. Arthritis can affect people of all ages, including children, but is more prevalent after the age of 40. It also affects more women than men, and you are more likely to develop arthritis if there is a family history of the condition[ii].
Types of arthritis
Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two most common types of arthritis in the UK, though there are several other conditions that similar symptoms may allude to.
It’s estimated that 8.5 million people have painful joints due to osteoarthritis[iii]
This makes it the most common form of arthritis. Although it can occur in any person at any age, osteoarthritis is most common among women in their mid-40s and above.
What is it? Osteoarthritis initially attacks the cartilage that lines the joint, making movement more difficult and causing stiffness and pain. Cartilage is flexible tissue that covers the surface of joints, allowing the connecting bones to move easily without effect. Once this begins to thin, the tendons and ligaments have to work harder to allow movement. It is this that causes swelling and the appearance of osteophytes, bone spurs that grow as a cellular response to repair the damage.
Common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:
- Stiffness and pain in the joints
- Problems moving those joints
- Swollen or tender joints
- Grating and crackling sounds when moving the affected joints
Osteoarthritis commonly affects the joints in the hands, spine, knees and hips. [iv]
Rheumatoid arthritis usually starts between the ages of 40 and 50, and women are three times more likely to be affected by it than men[v].
What is it? Rheumatoid arthritis starts as osteoarthritis does, though in response, the body’s immune system targets the affected joints. This leads to pain and swelling, and sometimes even the breakdown of cartilage and bone. Often, there are symptoms with rheumatoid arthritis where symptoms worsen, and these are known as flare-ups. Flare-ups can be hard to predict, but the treatment makes it possible to lessen the chance of them happening.
Having rheumatoid arthritis can put you at a higher risk of developing further complications. These include carpal tunnel syndrome, inflammation of the lungs, heart or eyes, heart attacks and strokes. As the graph below shows, the UK has the second-highest prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in Europe, though easy access to treatment means people with the condition can have extended periods of time without serious flare ups.[vi]
Unlike other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can affect other parts of the body too, including organs and tissue.
Other types of arthritis
Although there are over one hundred forms of arthritis, some are more prevalent than others. Other types of arthritis include:
- Ankylosing Spondylitis – An inflammatory condition that affects the spine, causing joints to fuse together.
- Cervical Spondylosis – Sometimes called degenerative osteoarthritis, cervical spondylosis infects the bones and joints of the neck.
- Fibromyalgia – Affects the tendons, ligaments and muscles of the whole body.
- Lupus – The immune system attacks its own healthy organs and tissues, most commonly those in the limbs.
- Gout – Caused by too much uric acid in the blood being left in joints.
- Psoriatic Arthritis – An uncommon side effect of psoriasis that causes inflamed joints.
- Enteropathic Arthritis – A chronic form of arthritis associated with inflammatory bowel disease.
- Reactive Arthritis – Commonly develops after an infection of the bowel or genital tract and can affect the eyes and the urethra.
- Secondary Arthritis – Develops after a joint injury, sometimes not appearing for many years afterwards.
Experts have not been able to determine the exact cause of arthritis due to the various types of the condition. However, speculated causes and factors which put you more at risk of developing the condition include:
- Age – Developing arthritis becomes more likely with age.
- Gender – Arthritis is more common in women, with 11.6 million women having a musculoskeletal condition compared to 8.7 million men[vii].
- Genetics – Although arthritis is not necessarily hereditary, those with certain genes, specifically the HLA-DRBI and protein tyrosine phosphatase 22 gene, have a higher risk of developing certain types of arthritis[viii].
- Weight – Obesity and other weight issues can lead to knee osteoarthritis.
- Joint injuries – Injuries that affect the joints can contribute to the development of arthritis in those joints.
- Infection – Bacterial infections can affect joints and trigger the development of several forms of arthritis.
- Job Role – Occupations involving manual labour and repetitive joint use are often associated with osteoarthritis.
- Lifestyle – Factors like smoking and having an unhealthy diet put you more at risk of developing arthritis.
Most forms of arthritis have been linked to a combination of potential roots; however some are unpredictable and come with no obvious cause.
Since there are a number of different forms of arthritis, symptoms often vary. However, there are several indications that can point to arthritis, and these include:
- Joint inflammation, pain, stiffness or tenderness: The most common symptoms of the condition.
- Restricted movement, particularly of the joints: Those who suffer with arthritis can find it difficult to move the affected joints comfortably and fluidly.
- Warm red skin over joint/s: This is a sign that arthritis has developed.
- Weakness & muscle atrophy[ix]: As the condition develops, the affected person might experience muscle wasting and weakness.
- Urinary incontinence: One symptom that many people do not associate with arthritis is urinary incontinence. According to one report, 38% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced lack of bladder control. Patients with other forms of arthritis also reported experiencing symptoms of urinary incontinence[x].
If you experience urinary incontinence, HARTMANN Direct’s range of incontinence pads can help you to manage the condition.
If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, it is vital that you visit your GP. They will provide you with an accurate diagnosis and suitable treatment. In some case you may need to be referred to a specialist at your local hospital for further investigations, support and treatment.
How does arthritis affect someone’s life?
Arthritis can severely impact a person’s everyday life. Joints become swollen or painful, meaning those suffering with arthritis are often weaker and find it harder to move as easily as they once could. On top of this, arthritis can also result in exhaustion, tiredness and sleep issues. Everyday chores such as laundry, cleaning, cooking and gardening often become challenging, especially as the disease progresses, though many people develop strategies and routines to help them manage their daily activities.
Most people with arthritis are still able to work, with many reporting an increased desire to do so since it gives them a sense of independence and boosts their confidence. However, in cases where arthritis begins to affect work, many employees will be lenient in adjusting workdays to assist them. Similarly, many people with arthritis are still able to drive, unless the severity of their symptoms restricts them from doing so. Since arthritis counts as a disability, many people with the condition can often claim disability benefits.
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has advice on finding out whether you are eligible for benefits due to a disability or illness, and what you might be entitled to. You can find this here.
Arthritis can also have a huge impact on confidence and body image. Since it causes swelling and inflammation, many people become self-conscious about the parts of the body that are affected. Clothing that highlights these body parts can make people feel self-conscious, and fashionable clothes and shoes may not be suitable since they could exacerbate the symptoms and lead to the worsening of the disease.
Finally, pregnancy, breastfeeding and trying for a baby can all become difficult with arthritis. Although these things are not impossible, they may require the person to stop taking their treatment medications, depending on the type of arthritis they have which could cause the symptoms to become much worse again. Before this decision is taken you should always discuss this with your specialist doctor or GP.
Many people who have arthritis are determined to continue living alone, so stable support from friends, family and medical practitioners is essential.[xi]
Although there is no cure for arthritis, there are several treatment options that can help reduce symptoms and allow people to live as regularly as possible. The aim of arthritis treatment is to relieve pain, boost joint strength and movement and control the disease as much as possible.
To treat arthritis, doctors may recommend a care plan including a combination of the following:
- Lifestyle changes
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Hot or cold compresses
How to limit the risks
Since some causes of arthritis are beyond our control, it is impossible to specify exactly how you can prevent the risk of developing arthritis. However, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of developing joint problems, most of which contribute to a healthy lifestyle overall and will help prevent other issues too.
- Eat A Healthy Diet – Eating a diet rich with fruit, vegetables and fish can help reduce inflammation.
- Keep Your Weight in Check – Obesity can wear down the knees and lead to the development of arthritis at a younger age.
- Exercise Regularly – Exercise will help you control your weight and strengthen the muscles that protect your joints.
- Avoid Injuries – Although joints naturally wear out with age, injury can cause them to wear out more quickly.
- Protect Your Joints – Consider the effect on your joints when you are sitting, working or lifting. Maintain proper posture and use the right techniques to protect your joints from everyday tension.
- Catch Symptoms Early – If you are experiencing symptoms of arthritis, you should go to a doctor sooner rather than later. The earlier arthritis is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
Rise above arthritis
Arthritis does not have to mean the end of the best parts of your life. Many people are able to continue doing the things they love with arthritis, or at least can alter their life goals around the new circumstances. Don’t let this disease define you, always seek help and advice from professionals.
You can find arthritis services which are local to you through this NHS resource.