If you suffer with stiff, painful joints caused by osteoarthritis you are certainly not alone. About eight million people have osteoarthritis in the UK, according to Arthritis Research UK, and that includes about eight out of 10 people over the age of 50.
The main characteristics of osteoarthritis are inflammation around your joints; damage to cartilage (the strong, smooth surface that lines the joints); and bony growths around the edge of your joints. Perhaps because so many people develop this painful condition in later years, we tend to see these changes as an inevitable part of ageing.
But new osteoarthritis guidelines published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) paint a far more positive picture. They say: “It is commonly thought that osteoarthritis is a part of ageing, and that it always gets worse and cannot be treated. But osteoarthritis does not always get worse as you get older. There are changes you can make to your lifestyle that can help to reduce pain and other symptoms.”
Is it really possible, as the guidelines suggest, not simply to slow down the progress of osteoarthritis but actually to improve distressing symptoms like pain and stiffness?
Lifestyle measures such as exercise and losing weight could really help to improve your osteoarthritis.
It’s perfectly possible, says Dr Tom Margham, GP and expert for Arthritis Research UK. “When people use phrases such as ‘wear and tear’ it suggests there is an inevitable wearing out, decay and degeneration going on,” he says. “But your body is not like a machine where a part wears out and you need to get new one. A better way to describe what goes on is ‘wear and repair’. There is a continual process of wear happening but your body is also constantly trying to repair itself.”
Your body’s amazing ability to repair itself – no matter what age you are or what physical condition you are in mean that lifestyle measures such as exercise and, if you are overweight, losing weight could help to improve your osteoarthritis.
“Regular exercise and weight loss help to create conditions that enable your body to carry on repairing itself,” says Dr Margham. “You can’t heal the surfaces in your joints, but you can reduce the load on them and you can support them with strong muscles.”
Don’t just sit there
“It can be tempting to avoid movement if you’re in pain, but it’s probably the worst thing you can do,” says Yours fitness expert Julie Robinson. “Regular exercise could help you to lose weight and research shows that doing strengthening, aerobic and stretching exercises could help to improve pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis.
Strengthening – These exercises work by strengthening the muscles so that they can support your joints better and help them function normally. “When your muscles get weak, your joints become unstable and that’s more painful,” explains Julie Robinson.
Try to do strengthening exercises twice a week. You could try:
* Walking up and down stairs or getting up and down from a chair – build up the amount you do gradually
* Joining an aquaerobics class – the water offers resistance to work against and supports your joints at the same time
* Walking to the shops and carrying your shopping back
* Dancing – dancing with a partner helps to strengthen the upper body as well as the lower.
Aerobic – This is the type of exercise that gets your blood pumping and makes you feel out of breath. “Interestingly, research shows that, if you are generally more aerobically fit, it improves symptoms in osteoarthritis of the hand as well as the hips and knees,” says Dr Margham. “Sometimes you may need to take a dose painkillers to get going, or to rub some pain-killing cream on.”
Aim to do at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, and this can be split up into chunks of as little as 10 minutes. You could try:
* Brisk walking
* Swimming (although you should avoid breaststroke if you have osteoarthritis of the hips or knees)
* Group exercise classes – see what’s available at your local leisure centre.
Stretching – Stretching exercises will benefit any joint affected by osteoarthritis, but are particularly recommended for osteoarthritis of the hip. “If you start to limit your range of movement, all the ligaments and tendons around your joints stiffen up and then they hurt even more,” says Julie Robinson. “Try to stretch them as far as you can comfortably, and keep doing it.” Arthritis Research UK has a booklet called ‘Keep Moving’ that contains stretching and strengthening exercises for people with any form of arthritis – for a free copy visit www.arthritisresearchuk.org or phone 0800 389 6692.
Lose a little weight
Research shows that carrying excess weight increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knees. Equally, losing weight can help to promote healing and repair, and so relieve symptoms like pain and stiffness. You don’t have to lose stones in weight either, says Dr Margham: “Fairly modest amounts of weight loss can lead to improvement in knee pain. Losing about 5kg (11lb) in weight is often enough for people to start noticing a difference in their pain.” Get help with weight loss at www.yoursdietclub.co.uk
Support your joints
Using simple aids is another way to give stiff, painful joints a helping hand. Dr Margham recommends wearing a knee brace if you have osteoarthritis of the knee, for example, can help to stabilise the joint and reduce pain, while shoes with thick, soft soles can act as shock absorbers and reduce jarring. Your GP can tell you what’s available in terms of supports, braces and insoles, and refer you to a podiatrist (foot expert) if necessary. “What we don’t want is people suffering in silence at home thinking there’s nothing that can be done about joint pain,” says Dr Margham, “There is plenty that can be done to help you get back to doing the stuff you enjoy.”
“You’ve got to keep moving”
Maura Morrin, now 71, has had arthritis in her back since the age of 44. “When I was first diagnosed the doctor advised me to stay in bed. But after a couple of days I was up and about again,” says Maura, who lives in Sutton Coldfield with husband Oliver. “You’ve got to keep moving.”
Maura attends Julie Robinson’s Move It Or Lose It classes every week. “We exercise to lovely music and the people are lovely too. It gives you an incentive to get up and go out. I’m sure the exercise helps my pain.” Most weekends Maura and Oliver go dancing at their local Irish Club. “We do the jive and I’m fine with that – I don’t feel the pain too much. Waltzes are a bit more difficult for me.” In the summer Maura also helps Oliver out on his allotment. “I get down on my hands and knees and do the weeding,” she says. “I’m out in the fresh air and I don’t think about the pain. “I know I’ve got to keep mobile,” says Maura. “It helps me to control my weight and, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have the same get up and go.”