Arthritis affects 10 million people in the UK. It is the greatest single cause of pain and disability in this country. To mark National Arthritis Month, we are asking people if they understand the symptoms to look out for, as getting an early diagnosis can make a big difference to quality of life as the disease progresses.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is not actually a single condition. There are several different types of arthritis. The most common is osteoarthritis, also known as wear and tear arthritis. This is caused by the cartilage which lines the joints becoming damaged and starting to wear away. Around 8.75 million people in the UK have sought medical help for osteoarthritis.
Other forms of arthritis include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: this is an autoimmune condition caused by the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissues, such as joints, causing inflammation and joint destruction.
- Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that is the result of too much uric acid in the body. It is linked to being overweight and certain types of food and drink. Genetic factors can make you more likely to develop gout.
- Other, less common types of arthritis include: spondyloarthritis and ankylosing spondylitis which affect mainly the joints of the spine; psoriatic arthritis which is an autoimmune condition which can affect joints and juvenile idiopathic arthritis which affects children and young people.
Who is affected by arthritis?
Osteoarthritis commonly, although not exclusively, affects older people as it is linked to deterioration of the cartilage in the joints, which can be due to ageing with increased time for wear and tear. It occurs most often in people over the age of 45 and is more common in women. Areas of the body that are typically affected by osteoarthritis include the hips, knees, hands and back.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect adults of any age but it is most common between the ages of 40 and 60 and affects more women than men.
Gout can affect both men and women but in men it tends to occur from the mid-20s onwards whereas in women it is more common after the menopause.
Spondyloarthritis is most common in men and generally develops between the ages of 20 and 30. Psoriatic arthritis normally affects people who have psoriasis, mainly adults. Around 12,000 children and young people in the UK have juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
What happens to arthritic joints?
Synovial joints are the areas in our bodies where two moving bones meet – such as knees, elbows, hips and shoulders. A strong capsule which makes and contains lubricating fluid surrounds most of the joints in our body, helping to lubricate and hold the bones in place. The ends of the bones are lined with cartilage which allows them to glide smoothly over each other as you move.
Arthritis affects the cartilage in our joints, making it rough and causing it to wear away over time. This means the bones can no longer move smoothly over each other and may start to rub together as the cartilage deteriorates. The joint capsule may stretch and the joint may become deformed. Sometimes bony spurs (osteophytes) form on the end of bones and the fluid inside the joint may thicken.
What are the early symptoms of arthritis?
In the early stages, the symptoms of arthritis may be relatively minor. However, it is a degenerative condition which means symptoms worsen over time. In the early stages you are likely to experience:
- Pain in your joints which may feel tender to the touch.
- Unexplained joint pain which is not linked to an injury or which has persisted for more than a few days.
- Stiffness in the joint.
- Swelling, heat or redness in the joint.
- Joint pain that is affecting your ability to perform everyday tasks.
- Gout sufferers may experience pain and swelling if they knock the affected joint or sometimes they develop a fever.
Over time your symptoms are likely to worsen and you may experience:
- Increasing problems with mobility which may start to impact your quality of life.
- Deformity of the affected joint.
- Severe pain and stiffness.
- Depression or anxiety.
- Rheumatoid arthritis may also lead to a range of other symptoms including fatigue and other organ damage.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
It is important to see a doctor as early as possible as the sooner you start the right treatment the better the outcome will be. Arthritis cannot be cured but the right treatment can slow the disease and help you to manage the symptoms. The doctor will want to carry out a physical examination and discuss how and when your symptoms developed. You may be offered diagnostic imaging tests such as an X-ray, CT or MRI scan to confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests may also be used to rule out other conditions which can cause similar symptoms such as fibromyalgia and lupus.
What are the treatment options for arthritis?
In the early stages, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help relieve arthritis symptoms. These include:
- Losing weight if you are overweight to relieve pressure on your joints
- Exercise to strengthen muscles and increase joint suppleness and flexibility.
- Taking painkillers and anti-inflammatories to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
- Using assistive devices, such as leg braces, splints or special insoles to reduce strain on your joints.
- Using ice packs or hot water bottles to soothe the affected joint.
As the condition develops you may be offered:
- Stronger painkillers such as codeine or capsaicin cream which you apply to affected joints.
- Injections of corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid or platelet-rich plasma for short- medium term relief of pain.
- TENS machine to ease pain.
- Physiotherapy to help to mobilise your joints and keep them flexible and supple.
- Surgery for the most severe forms of arthritis, which may include joint fusion or joint replacement (traditional versus Mako robotic assisted joint replacements).
What should I do if I suspect I may have arthritis?
If you have symptoms that may be linked to arthritis, talk to a doctor or orthopaedic surgeon who will be able to provide a diagnosis and discuss an appropriate treatment plan. You may also want to read our blog: Fast Facts About Arthritis.
Carrothers Orthopaedics Consultations – Cambridge
Carrothers Orthopaedics is currently open and scheduling clinic appointments, as well as surgery. The safety of patients and staff remains our number one priority at all times. We are happy to discuss fully the risks and benefits of any proposed orthopaedic surgery, in the context of the ongoing UK Covid-19 pandemic.
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For your convenience, we offer appointments at both Nuffield Hospital Cambridge and Spire Cambridge Lea Hospital.