Arthritis: don’t ignore aches and pains
Arthritis often starts with joint pain and stiffness so don’t ignore mystery pangs, particularly in your hands, hips or knees.
Arthritis is commonly thought of as an older person’s issue but it can affect people of all ages. Almost four million Australians are living with the condition and it’s predicted that figure will double by 2050.
“In Western countries, arthritis is a modern epidemic. Our lifestyle often leads to obesity, which is a major risk factor for many types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis,” says Professor Patrick McNeil, rheumatologist and chair of Arthritis Australia.
“The other contributing factor to the growing statistics is that people are living longer. The longer someone lives, the more likely it is they will develop a variety of health conditions – including arthritis.”
Types of arthritis
“Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis in Australia, with 8 per cent of the population diagnosed,” says Professor McNeil. However, many people don’t know they have OA, so this figure is likely to be much higher.
OA occurs in the knees, hips, fingers and toes and affects the bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles of the joint. Symptoms are pain, stiffness in the joints and reduced mobility.
Risk factors include being overweight, previous injuries to the joints and a family history of the condition. There is no cure for OA, but it can be managed by weight loss, exercise, pain medication and, if necessary, with walking frames and sticks. Joint replacement surgery is an option in advanced cases.
“Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects 2 per cent of our population,” says Professor McNeil. It’s the second most common type of arthritis in Australia and is an autoimmune disease that causes hand, feet, knee and hip joints to swell painfully.
Smoking and a family history of the condition are the greatest risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis, which can be very debilitating if not treated appropriately and quickly.
Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) affects the joints in the neck, back, pelvis, hips and shoulders, which become inflamed, painful and stiff. “It's an inflammatory arthritis that can be very damaging and life changing,” says Professor McNeil.
The pain is often worse after resting or sitting for prolonged periods, whereas it tends to be less severe with exercise. There is no known cause of AS, but research suggests a gene is present in most sufferers. Modern treatments have revolutionised the outlook for those with the condition.
“Some new medications relieve the symptoms of AS,” says Professor McNeil. “In fact, the research and advances in treatment are the biggest in arthritis treatment for many years.”
Gout occurs when the body’s uric acid isn’t excreted and instead turns into crystals that deposit in and around joints. This results in inflammation, pain and swelling of the toes, feet, hands, wrists, knees and elbows.
Gout is episodic, which means it comes and goes, and tends to occur in people with a family history of it, or because of lifestyle factors such as obesity, overeating, not drinking enough water, crash dieting, excessive alcohol consumption and eating and drinking purine-rich foods such as processed meat.
“Gout is very common in Australia and there is a misconception that it's caused by alcohol, not arthritis,” explains Professor McNeil.
There are a number of medicines to treat gout and flare-ups can be prevented through certain medications and lifestyle modifications.
The arthritis myth
Arthritis isn’t just a condition for seniors. About 62 per cent of arthritis sufferers are aged between 15 and 64. Osteoarthritis occurs most frequently in people over the age of 40, while RA can occur at any age, although it is also more common in older people. AS is most prevalent in men aged between 15 and 45, and gout in men aged between 40 and 50.
“Early diagnosis is the key. If you’re experiencing joint pain, no matter what your age, see your GP, who may refer you to an appropriate specialist. Don’t dismiss any aches and pains,” he warns.