Reach a certain age and you’ll likely hear about arthritis on a frequent basis. A friend complains about its pain, another is on an anti-osteoarthritis diet, and yet another has joined a gym to manage its symptoms.
But what is arthritis, exactly—and what can you do to treat or prevent it?
Arthritis refers to a collection of 200 rheumatoid diseases—that is, disorders of the musculoskeletal system, soft tissues, and connective tissues. Some of them you may have heard of—such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout and fibromyalgia—but others, like Adult-onset Still’s Disease, are rarer. One thing holds true across the board, however: Arthritis can engender a range of symptoms that impair one’s ability to perform everyday activities.
The most common form of arthritis—the type your friends are probably discussing or trying to thwart—is osteoarthritis, a condition that causes cartilage to break down. But, together, arthritis in all its forms impacts more than 54.4 million people in the US; of these, 23.7 million “have their activity curtailed in some way by their condition,” Medical News Today reports.
Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be; knowledge, after all, is key. Given that May is National Arthritis Month, we’ve put together the basics on arthritis so that you can be—or remain—pain-free. Read on.
What causes arthritis?
It would be much easier if we could point to a single underlying cause of arthritis. The truth is, it varies case by case with causes that depend on the type of arthritis and both non-modifiable and modifiable factors. Excessive alcohol consumption, for example, raises the level of uric acid in the blood and can lead to gout. An injury, meanwhile, can result in degenerative arthritis. Infection, obesity, underlying diseases, and genetics also play a role in arthritis, as does age (arthritis can affect people of all ages, including children, but it typically hits adults 65 years and older) and gender, with women at a greater risk for osteoarthritis and men at a higher danger of gout.
Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, diet, and physically demanding occupations, can also contribute to the onset of arthritis and its progression. In other words, a number of forces may be at work in the development of the disease, whose appearance can be gradual or sudden. Which brings us to our next point.
What are the signs and symptoms of arthritis?
As the Mayo Clinic reports, the “most common signs and symptoms of arthritis involve the joints.” Given that our joints tend to remind us of their presence only when they’re hurting, these include pain, stiffness, swelling, tenderness, redness, numbness and tingling, and a decreased range of motion. Other, less widely-known symptoms include fever, fatigue, anemia and a loss of appetite.
What complications does arthritis present?
One of the biggest drawbacks of arthritis is the impediment it can cause to the activities in your life. Simple tasks—such as twisting a doorknob or climbing a flight of stairs—can be accompanied by pain, while more vigorous activities, such as dancing, may become intolerable. What’s more, rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition, that’s left untreated can cause lasting damage to your joints (and the nearby muscles and cartilage).
It can also cause complications for your eyes, lungs, skin, heart, blood vessels and other organs, WebMD reports. For example, you may begin to notice lumps of tissue, known as rheumatoid nodules, on your forearms, fingers, heels and heels. Additionally, people with rheumatoid arthritis are more vulnerable to hypertension, which is the leading cause of comorbidity for adults with arthritis. Finally, while arthritis is not fatal, it does shorten your lifespan. To phrase it differently, don’t ignore those symptoms—talk to your doctor pronto.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
Your physician will hear out your symptoms before conducting a physical exam to test your range of motion and the swelling of your joints. This is usually followed by an X-ray and blood tests, which will help your doctor ascertain the form of arthritis you may have.
What can I do to avoid it?
First, if you are a smoker, stop. Not only is one in five arthritis sufferers a smoker, but smoking also causes respiratory complications, which serves as the second most common cause of comorbidity among adults with arthritis. Furthermore, aim for overall health. Maintaining your ideal weight, practicing sleep management, avoiding alcohol, preventing injury (such as using your hips and not your back to lift heavy pieces), and exercising regularly can all make an enormous difference in eluding arthritis.
Say I get—or have—arthritis. How can I treat it?
The treatment of arthritis involves managing pain, reducing joint damage and improving (or maintaining) the quality and function of life. This may include medication, such as NSAIDs, to treat inflammatory forms of arthritis, physical and/or occupational therapy, splints or joint assistive aids and lifestyle changes, like losing weight and increasing exercise. Note that NSAIDs can help take away pain but they can lead to further cartilage degeneration so they aren’t a good long term therapy.
You might also want to consider supplements. Preliminary research on the impact of omega-3s on osteoarthritis discovered that fish oil helped both cartilage and bone in guinea pigs. Meanwhile, SAMe (S-adenosyl-methionine) may promote healthy cartilage and the reduction of symptoms. (Just be sure to consult with your physician first.)†
You’ll also want to care for your joints smartly by “using the stronger, larger joints as levers when opening doors, using several joints to spread the weight of an object such as a backpack and gripping as loosely as possible by using padded handles,” Medical News Today suggests. In addition, consider taking some of your exercises to a heated pool. Warm water therapy, such as swimming, supports your weight and relieves pressure on your joints and muscles. And don’t forget the power of yoga. The deep breathing, relaxation techniques and copious stretching involved in yoga promotes a robust immune system and encourages joint health.
Will changing my diet impact my symptoms of arthritis—or help me avoid it altogether?
In a word, yes. “While studies are rather limited, the best odds so far are on a Mediterranean-style diet,” says Joy Dubost, Ph.D., RD, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This is because the heart-healthy eating regimen is jam-packed with anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish, whole grains, olives and olive oil.
If you have arthritis, or want to prevent it (and who doesn’t?), you may want to consider adding tart cherry juice to your diet. Rich in anthocyanins—flavonoids with potent antioxidant effects—tart cherry juice has been shown to help with muscle soreness and biomarkers of inflammation. You can also experiment with spices. Turmeric, garlic, cinnamon and ginger, for example, may soothe inflammation, while black pepper may ease pain.†
If you eat wheat, consider breaking from it for a while; many, including those who don’t have celiac disease, have revealed decreased joint pain after eliminating it from their diets. Likewise, consider eradicating“nightshade” vegetables, which include white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and bell pepper. These veggies contain a compound called solanine that research has linked to arthritis pain.
Instead, dig into a plate of broccoli. Not only does it brim with bone-strengthening calcium but it also contains a compound called sulforaphane, which scientists have shown could foil or decelerate the progression of osteoarthritis. Pain-free, and life will feel like yours—which is exactly as it should be.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.