Your arthritis questions answered

Your arthritis questions answered

Arthritis Research UK’s resident GP, Dr Tom Margham, answers your questions about arthritis and pain management

1.    What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a term used by doctors to describe conditions affecting the joints.  In fact, there are about 200 different musculoskeletal conditions, the most common of which are osteoarthritis and back pain but includes less common diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Whilst there are many different musculoskeletal conditions they are similar in that they cause pain and impact on everyday activities.

2.    What causes it?

As there are so many forms of arthritis, there isn't a single answer to this question.
Most types of arthritis are caused by many factors acting together. You may be naturally more likely to develop certain disorders as a result of your genetic make-up or whether you are male or female. Women are more likely to be affected by osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis. A variety of external factors may increase the risk further such as being overweight, previous injury, infection, smoking, and occupations which are very demanding physically. But for many conditions there’s a strong element of chance.

3.    What can I do to help me cope with the pain of arthritis?

Pain is a protective mechanism that alerts the brain when damage has occurred. But pain isn’t just a sensation, it has emotional effects too – making us feel upset or depressed.
There are a number of approaches available to help you manage your pain:

  • Drugs

o    Painkilling drugs range from paracetamol to codeine and up to stronger options like oxycodone and slow release morphine
o    Painkilling creams and gels that contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be effective, especially for knees, hands and feet
o    Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which are painkillers as well as having an anti-inflammatory action
o    Corticosteroids, often called steroids for short, given by injection

  • Simple measures that can help to relieve joint or muscle pain include:

o    A heated wheat or rice pad or a hot-water bottle
o    An ice pack or a cold-water compress
o    Massage (with or without creams that create a sense of warmth)
o    Adequate rest time

  • If your pain is long-lasting and doesn’t respond fully to drugs or physical treatments, and can’t be cured by surgery, you might want to consider some lifestyle changes:

o    Avoid certain activities
o    Ask for help from your GP
o    Try using gadgets and home adaptations
A doctor, social worker, physiotherapist or occupational therapist can offer expert help and advice with these changes.

4.    I’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, should I avoid exercise?

If arthritis is causing pain, you may not want to move. But the opposite is true - our joints are designed to move, they are not machine parts that simply wear out. There is a constant process of wear and repair happening as our joints adapt to the stresses and strains of normal everyday life.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the process of wear and repair goes out of balance – for example due to injury or being overweight – which leads to pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints.  If we move less the muscles around the joints will weaken, making the joints less well supported and stable which makes movement even more difficult.
In summary - if you don’t use it, you may lose it.
Exercise also has positive mental effects. Often you’ll feel much better and more self-confident when you’ve done some exercise. This can affect the way you cope with a condition.
To start exercise and stay motivated, follow these tips:

  • Set realistic goals – start low and go slowly
  • Do exercise that you enjoy  - people who stick with exercise benefit the most in the long term
  • Do it regularly
  • Find a friend – exercising with others will keep you motivated and help your wellbeing

5.    I’ve tried conventional treatment for arthritis but it doesn’t seem to help, should I consider alternative therapies?

In the UK, at least 60 per cent of people with arthritis use complementary and alternative medicine each year.  From aromatherapy to acupuncture, because there are so many types, it’s impossible to generalise about whether they work or not.  Everyone responds differently to the treatments. 
However, if you find that complementary and alternative therapies work for you, then this may be a more important consideration than how or why the therapy works.
Do bear these tips in mind:
•    Be realistic – there are no miracle cures for arthritis (be suspicious of anyone or any website, promising a miracle cure)
•    Tell your doctor – most doctors will be interested to find out what has helped you
•    Keep taking your prescribed medication, unless advised otherwise by your doctor

6.    Does diet affect my arthritis?

Although there are no diets or dietary supplements that will cure your arthritis, some people do find that their symptoms improve as a result of changing what they eat.
Research has also discovered several links between arthritis and diet, so it’s still worth thinking about what you eat.
The two most important things to bear in mind are:

  • Your weight – if you’re overweight, losing some weight will reduce the strain on your joints, so you may find you don’t need to take painkillers quite so often
  • Whether your diet gives you the vitamins and minerals you need – a good diet can help to protect you against some possible side-effects of drugs and against heart disease (which can sometimes be a complication of certain types of arthritis)

If you have any type of arthritis you should try to eat:

  • A balanced and varied diet to get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients you need
  • A more Mediterranean-style diet which includes fish, pulses, nuts, olive oil and plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • More omega-3 fatty acids, for example, from oily fish

During National Arthritis Week, Arthritis Research UK is asking people living with arthritis to share their pain with them. They want to know how it impacts your day, the challenges you face and the triumphs you experience.  It’s important because people’s experiences will help guide the research Arthritis Research UK funds in 2016. Please share your story here

For more health advice, pick up the latest copy of Yours