Arthritis: A guide to understanding, treating and preventing the degenerative condition
What is Arthritis? Arthritis is not one disease alone, but an umbrella term for more than 100 conditions that affect the body’s joints. Joints are simply points where 2 or more bones meet, such as in the wrist, knuckles, hips, knees and ankles. If you have arthritis, the joints are inflamed, causing discomfort and pain.
The main symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, ranging from mild to severe and affecting people of all ages, however, symptoms typically worsen with age.
Treatments vary depending on the type of arthritis, with the main goal being to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.
There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, but the two most common occurrences are known as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, both causing damage to the joints in different ways.
Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear of joints, leading to damaged cartilage. Cartilage cushions the ends of the bones and allows nearly frictionless joint motion, but enough damage can result in bone grinding directly on bone, which causes pain and restricted movement.
An infection or injury to a joint can exacerbate this natural breakdown of cartilage tissue. Damaged cartilage leads to the joint lining becoming swollen and inflamed.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder which occurs when the immune system attacks the tissues of the body, resulting in inflammation to joints as well as other bodily organs.
In the joints, this inflammatory response affects the synovium, a soft tissue in your joints that produces a fluid that nourishes the cartilage and lubricates the joints, eventually destroying both bone and cartilage inside the joint.
The exact cause of the internal attacks is unknown, but scientists have discovered genetic markers that can significantly increase the risk of developing Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Basically, Osteoarthritis causes the breakdown of cartilage (the flexible connective tissue covering the ends of bones) through excessive wear and tear, while Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the joints.
The most common signs and symptoms of arthritis involve the joints. Depending on the type of arthritis, signs and symptoms may include:
- Joint pain
- Joint stiffness
- Joint swelling
- Warmth and redness around joints
- Clicking or popping with bending
- Muscle weakness around joints
- Buckling or instability of joints
- Bony growths in fingers
- Scraping or grating feeling in the knees
- Decreased joint movement/range of motion, which can sometimes ease with movement
Some people also get other problems outside their joints. Other common symptoms include:
- Over tiredness/fatigue
- Weight loss
- A lingering stiffness in the morning
- Multiple affected areas, or size of affected area increasing
- Fever symptoms
- Inflammation of the eyes and mouth
- Inflammation of the heart muscle and blood vessels
- Low red blood cell count
Severe arthritis, particularly if it affects your hands or arms, can make it difficult for you to do daily tasks. Arthritis of weight-bearing joints can keep you from walking comfortably or sitting up straight. In some cases, joints may gradually lose their alignment and shape.
While the causes of many types of arthritis are not fully known, most forms of arthritis are thought to be caused by a fault in the immune system that causes the body to attack its own joint tissues. It is believed that these faults within the immune system may be inherited genetically.
Other forms of arthritis can be caused by injury, wear and tear, or a metabolic condition, such as gout, which is caused by Uric acid crystals that form when there’s too much uric acid in your blood. Infections or underlying disease, such as psoriasis or lupus, can cause other types of arthritis.
There are also numerous environmental factors that can accelerate the development of osteoarthritis, including:
- Obesity, which puts significant strain on joints
- Activities involving repeated movement of a particular joint, for example, rock climbers being susceptible to arthritic hands
- Poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking or avoiding regular physical activity
- Prior joint damage, such as from a work accident or sporting injury
- Wear and tear from overuse of joints
- Poor dietary habits
- Your sex, as women are more likely to develop Rheumatoid Arthritis, while Gout affects a much higher portion of men
- Age, as Osteoarthritis is most common in those over 50
- Muscular weakness
- Autoimmune disorders
- Genes or family history
There is another form of arthritis known as Reactive Arthritis, which is difficult to diagnose and caused by an infection. It is most commonly seen amongst younger people, but it can develop at any age and linger for anywhere between a few weeks and six months.
When left untreated, symptoms of arthritis may affect your day-to-day life, worsening with the progression of time. Below are some of the possible complications associated with arthritis:
- Reduced mobility is the result of progressive arthritis, as movements become less comfortable or even painful
- A potentially lower ability to work, through pain associated with certain movements
- Weight gain is associated with a decreased range of movement and the discomfort that prevents regular exercise
- Heightened risk of metabolic disorders, such as Type II Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol, and Heart Disease.
- Inflammation spreading to other organs and areas of the body, when the arthritis is attributed to an autoimmune disease
- Increased risk of falling, due to muscle weakness and possible side effects from medications
- Declining mental health, as lingering pain, inflammation and social isolation drastically increase the risk of depression and anxiety
While there is no cure for arthritis, there are treatments available that can help control symptoms and prevent further damage to joints. The best treatment will depend on the type of arthritis, the area it affects, and the symptoms it triggers.
Treatment may involve:
- Medicines, such as painkillers, anti-inflammatory medications, or disease-modifying antireheumatic medications (DMARDs), and supplements
- Natural relief remedies, such as a turmeric, ginger and honey tea
- Pain management techniques, such as pilates, meditation, and mindfulness
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Diet modification, removing processed foods or adding vitamins and minerals.
- Regular exercise and, if needed, weight loss.
- Hot and cold therapy, see more
- Applying Boswellia Essential Oil (Indian Frankincense), a natural rub to reduce inflammation
- Consuming epsom salt and lemon juice twice daily for a magnesium kick, or alfalfa seeds for their medicinal properties
- Personal mobility assistance machines and devices, such as canes and walking frames, or electric mobility scooters
In severe cases, surgery may be needed to replace or repair damaged joints, but if caught early, there are many things that can be done to manage arthritis.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help control the symptoms of arthritis.
Amongst many factors, a healthy lifestyle includes:
A balanced diet: is arguably the most important factor in maintaining a healthy weight. A healthy weight significantly reduces the pressure put on joints, reducing arthritic pain, or lowering the risk of developing an arthritic condition. Eating well is also critical for your overall health and wellbeing, promoting your body’s natural defenses and reducing risk of diseases caused by a high intake of processed foods.
Evidence suggests that healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, may also mildly aid in soothing arthritic symptoms.
Anyone suffering from arthritis, or aiming to prevent arthritis development, can benefit from the following:
- Mediterranean foods, including fish, pulses, nuts, olive oil, fruits and vegetables
- Saturated fats from vegetable oils, avocados, seeds, nuts and naturally cured jamon
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, or dietary supplements
- Epsom salt and lemon juice (3 tsp of each mixed with a pint of warm water), for added vitamin C and magnesium
- An adequate intake of calcium, which can be found in fish, dairy, seeds, nuts and dark leafy greens
- Alfalfa seeds for natural medicinal qualities and arthritic relief properties
- Natural relief remedies, such as a turmeric, ginger and honey tea
- A lower intake of saturated fats from poultry, red meat and full fat dairy
- A lower intake of caloric rich foods to avoid weight gain
- A lower intake of processed foods altogether, focussing on consuming natural, whole food products
Those with gout should avoid foods containing purines, including meat, seafood, foods containing yeast. If you need advice about your diet, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian. See:
Exercising regularly: is not only one of the most effective methods of treating arthritis, but it is also beneficial for prevention. Exercise can help in many ways, including:
- Maintaining muscular strength for joint support
- Reducing stiffness in joints
- Lifting energy levels and mood
- Reducing joint pain and tension
- Improving mobility, or preventing degeneration
- Reducing fatigue and depression
- Improving quality and quantity of sleep
The most appropriate type of exercise will depend on the type of arthritis being treated. It is critical to find the right type and level of exercise, ensuring not to further aggravate the affected areas. It is very important to ease into any exercise routine maintaining consistency is a lot easier if you are doing an activity you enjoy.
There are three types of exercises that are needed to make an effective training routine. These aim to improve:
- Range of movement, focusing on flexibility and promoting good posture. Stretching, swimming, walking, cycling, pilates and yoga are effective and safe methods of increasing your range of movement
- Strength, as muscles require regular use to maintain the strength required to support joints and movement. Weight training is the most prescribed strength builder, but there are many exercises you can do at home without equipment to build strength
- Cardio (aerobic), exercises to raise the heartbeat and improve general fitness. Cardiovascular fitness can be promoted through regular walking, swimming, cycling
You may experience muscle soreness when commencing an exercise routine for the first time, which is usually just due to inactive muscles being used. Muscles may begin to feel tight or tired in the 24 – 48 hours after the workout, but this should never cause significant discomfort.
Exercise therapy for Osteoarthritis should never be strenuous, as too much exercise can accelerate joint degeneration. Those with Rheumatoid Arthritis should are encouraged to find the period of the day where they are most energised, and complete light, low-impact exercises in each of their joints.
Exercise lightly, but regularly, focusing on consistency. Never force your body into painful positions or movements. See:
Pain Management: Pain can be caused by inflammation, injury or damage to joints, and muscular tension. Pain can also worsen with stress or fatigue.
Some pain management techniques include:
- Light daily exercise, depending on the affected area and pain severity
- Stretching throughout the day, or utilising practices like yoga and pilates
- Utilising pain killers, if required and advised by a doctor or pharmacist
- Applying sources of heat or cold to affected areas, or utilising hot and cold therapy
- Undertaking therapies including massage, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
- Practicing meditation and mindfulness
- Avoiding movements and activities that make pain worse
Depending on the type and severity, there are numerous treatments available to manage arthritic conditions. All treatments should be supplemented with a healthy lifestyle, based around adequate nutrition, exercise, rest and relaxation.
Some risk factors of arthritis are unavoidable, such as your family history, age or gender, however, there are many things you can do to promote optimal health and wellbeing. Aside from the list of natural treatments above, including maintaining a healthy diet and regularly exercising, there is usually room for improvement when it comes to healthy living.
Some of the risk factors of arthritis can be mitigated by:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Being physically active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Actively resting and relaxing, such as through stretching, massage therapy and adequate amounts of sleep
- Avoiding regular/excessive consumption of alcohol
- Quitting, or at least cutting back on smoking
- Reducing movements/activities which may aggravate joints
Maintaining a healthy weight takes unnecessary pressure from the joints, reducing gradual deterioration and mitigating risk of Osteoarthritis.
A balanced diet is not only important for weight loss, but also healthy function of the body’s immune system, which both contribute to preventing arthritis. A diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, sourced through whole, unprocessed foods, can also reduce inflammation.
Consumption of certain foods should also be reduced when treating or actively preventing arthritis, including fried foods, all processed foods, high fat dairy products, and a high intake of red meat or poultry products.
Consistency is key, and exercise routines and diets are a lot easier to commit to when you enjoy what you are doing. Pick activities you like, give yourself enough time to rest, and enjoy treats in moderation.
The Bottom Line
Arthritis can severely impact quality of life through pain and reduced mobility. A person suffering from arthritis may also have issues associated with sleep, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
Arthritis can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions and lack of physical activity can lead to weakness, frailty, loss of movement and function, loss of independence and involuntary social isolation.
Currently, there is no cure for arthritis, but the correct treatment can greatly reduce symptoms. In addition to the recommended treatment, simple lifestyle changes can also assist with managing arthritis.
About the Author: Harrison has more than a decade of experience on, and off, the rugby field as a player, junior coach and part-time referee. His passion for rugby led him to the Australian Institute of Personal Trainers where he studied the human body, exercise and nutrition, before being registered as a health and fitness professional with Fitness Australia and Fitness First Australia. Although the career path has changed, his passion for health, fitness, and Rugby will always remain.