Arthritis affects more than 10 million people in the UK
Despite the fact that the painful condition of arthritis is so prevalent, affecting more than 10 million people, it is not an issue that tends to hit the headlines, or receive the attention it deserves from government or the health service.
During Arthritis Awareness Week, this is a good time to think about what we can all do to help protect ourselves from the most common form of the disease, osteoarthritis, and to minimise the effects as far as possible. Shockingly, it can take up to three years to get diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a situation that has become worse over the past decade or so. Access to treatments, from drugs to physiotherapy and joint replacement surgery, can also involve long waits, and vary depending on whereabouts you live.
Top tips on managing or avoiding osteoarthritis
Lose weight to lessen the strain on joints
• The single most important thing that anyone can do to avoid osteoarthritis, or stop it getting worse, is to lose weight. However much you weigh, that load is pressing on your legs and feet: hips, knees and ankles are the joints that bear the strain, and the load is even greater, of course, as soon as you start walking or do any sort of movement. Just lifting one foot off the ground as you step forward increases the strain on the other leg by about 50%.
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Build muscle strength through exercise
• Exercise is another key factor in fighting osteoarthritis. Not only does it become easier to lose weight when you become more physically active, but exercise will build muscle strength, and stronger muscles can support your joints more effectively. You can exercise in a chair, if your mobility is limited, and a good way to get more active if it is at all possible, is swimming. The water supports your weight, easing the strain on joints, while your muscles build their strength by working against the resistance provided by the water.
Specialist physio treatment can be beneficial
• It is a paradox that although exercise is important, to strengthen muscles and to maintain or improve joint mobility, many people find exercise brings more joint pain, and they fear that they may be making things worse. This is where a physiotherapist can help with guiding appropriate activities for rehabilitation for arthritis sufferers and promoting mobility. Specialist physio treatment, such as AposTherapy, which is based on a foot-worn biomechanical device, individually calibrated by specially trained physiotherapists, can help to correct any abnormal stress on joints – particularly the knees – as well as actively retraining the muscles to stabilise the joints.
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Dietary allies against arthritis
• It seems that diet may have a role to play in preventing or slowing the progression of arthritis, but the evidence is not clear-cut. Apart from following the normal guidelines for a healthy diet to maintain weight at a sensible level, some research suggests that an increased consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids can be helpful. These can be found in oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon. Fish liver oil supplements may also help, but it is important not to take too large a quantity.
Effective drugs for pain relief
• Drug therapy for osteoarthritis is focused on pain management. There is some evidence for a regular low dose of aspirin also helping to reduce cartilage loss, but larger scale studies are required. Aspirin needs to be approached with some caution because of the internal bleeding that can be caused as it damages the stomach lining. Paracetamol is probably not sufficiently powerful to offer pain relief in most cases. For many people, this means changing to paracetamol codeine combinations, or to ibuprofen and other medicines in the anti-inflammatory class. All medicines, even those available without prescription, need to be taken with care, and respect for the proper dosage.
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Arthritis pain can make every day tasks a challenge
Arthritis causes pain and stiffness in the joints which can make day-to-day tasks, like brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea or getting a good night’s sleep really difficult. Although arthritis is often dismissed as aches and pains, the general public recognise the impact of the symptoms that people with arthritis contend with every day. Over half of the population (51 per cent) said they would find it challenging to do everyday tasks like shopping, cooking or socialising with friends if they experienced joint, neck or back pain and stiff knees.
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