What you don’t know can hurt you. Arthritis can strike anyone at any time, and although researchers don’t know what causes arthritis, with early diagnosis and treatment therapies you can still enjoy an active lifestyle.
Arthritis is a generic word that represents more than 100 rheumatic diseases including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, tendonitis and lupus.
The focus here will be on osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
The most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) affects around 1.3 million Australians— that’s almost 7 per cent of the population. Generally it appears in adults over the age of 45. OA is usually found in weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, spine and feet) and in the hands.
The disease is characterised by the thinning of the cartilage and the thickening of the bone underneath. Over time the cartilage breaks down, and the ends of the bone become rough and may develop spurs.
Symptoms of OA include joint pain and stiffening. Swelling may develop, and a loss of range of motion in the joint may be experienced.
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA) the body’s immune system attacks healthy joints, causing inflammation in the joint linings. The result is erosion of cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments in the area around the joint. RA sufferers may develop disabilities such as difficulty in walking or with using hands for routine activities such as dressing.
RA is most common in adults from 25 to 50, but can appear in anyone—from infants to the elderly. RA can affect any of the joints in the body as well as tissues and organs.
Usually RA strikes symmetrically, so if you experience pain in your right wrist, you’ll also feel it in your left. Unlike OA, which can affect both men and women in the same ratio, RA affects two to three times more women than men.
Apart from joint pain, RA symptoms vary for each person. You may experience flu-like symptoms, periods of flare-up and remission or continual progression of the disease. Early diagnosis of RA is important to minimise damage and the risk of disability.
What can I do to promote quality of life?
Develop a plan
Working with your health care practitioner, you can devise a strategy for minimising pain and maximising mobility. This may include conventional treatment options and holistic or complementary therapies.
For both types of arthritis, exercise has been shown to improve quality of life.
If you enjoy an exercise you are more likely to stick with it and reap the benefits, such as weight management, increased energy and better sleep.
While summer boasts the opportunity to get out and walk, cycle and swim—autumn and winter conditions may seem less inviting. Look to similar activities in a more conducive environment.
Gyms offer treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers. Therapeutic pools have the benefit of heat in addition to the buoyancy of water and offer aerobic conditioning for people with arthritis.
Holistic and complementary therapies
These therapies are based on the concept of energy flow (often referred to as chi) through the body. A block in the flow of this energy creates an imbalance. Over time this causes a breakdown in the physical body resulting in an illness.
Linda Turner worked for 25 years as a clinical pain specialist nurse. She found that treating pain with medication wasn’t enough, but complementary therapies combined with mainstream health care were more effective in treating pain than using Western medicine alone.
Turner acknowledges stress as a major contributor to illness. These therapies help to reduce stress and maintain balance in the body.
For people with arthritis, Turner suggests stress-reduction courses that focus on breathing and meditation, which can also be effective in dealing with pain. Qigong uses breathing and movement to improve energy flow. Other therapies she recommends include yoga, tai chi, massage, energy healing and even martial arts.
Massage therapy can improve mobility and reduce pain. Therapist Jules Torti says that massage therapists have specific treatments for those suffering from OA and RA.
There are many ways that a massage can benefit arthritis sufferers, including increasing oxygenated blood flow to the joints, relaxing the digestive tract that may be upset from medications and aiding in restful sleep.
If you experience any pain or inflammation prior to or during your treatment or exercise routine, refrain until you consult your health care practitioner.
Does weather affect arthritis?
There is no conclusive proof that weather affects the disease, arthritis. At most, weather may affect the symptoms of the disease in some people.
This may be due to the lower air pressure often present during cold and rainy weather. Lower pressure may allow tissue to expand in joints, and if a joint is already inflamed there may be an increase in pain.
Other theories postulate that an individual’s pain threshold could be lower during winter months, or that mood could be affected by cold wet weather. Or it may be that because of the weather conditions you might be less likely to go outside and get the exercise you need to keep symptoms in check.
This doesn’t mean that you should move to a warmer, drier climate. People in these climates still suffer from arthritis pain. If you feel that going outside for exercise may aggravate your condition, consider indoor alternatives and complementary therapies that could improve the management of your arthritis and overall well-being.