Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Arthritis is not a single condition. Firstly, osteoarthritis is a “wear and tear” that we all get as we get older. It occurs when the cartilage between bones breaks down, resulting in joint pain. Over time, the cartilage stiffens and becomes less flexible and therefore less able to cushion and absorb shocks.
Broken cartilage does not regrow on its own, so osteoarthritis typically worsens over time. Arthritis often affects the hands, hips, and knees, but it can affect any joint in the body, especially weight-bearing joints.
The other type of arthritis is inflammatory arthritis, which is an umbrella of chronic conditions where the immune system is attacking the body. Inflammatory arthritis usually affects multiple joints and occurs on both sides of the body, whereas osteoarthritis may affect only one knee or elbow, for example. Inflammatory arthritis can even cause serious problems in the eyes, heart or lungs. There is a genetic component to developing forms of arthritis as the condition can run in families. It usually develops in middle age and affects more women than men.
Symptoms of Arthritis
Arthritis causes joint pain that can feel like stiffness, tenderness and swelling; pain may increase related to weather or after active use. Joint stiffness is typically worse in the morning. People with osteoarthritis have an increased risk of falls and fractures.
Inflammatory arthritis also causes joint inflammation and pain and is sometimes accompanied by a low-grade fever, loss of appetite, anemia, or fatigue. Hands and feet are commonly affected, and they may become swollen or reddened in addition to stiff and painful. Symptoms usually come and go - known as flares and periods of remission, where the patient is symptom-free.
Treatment of Arthritis
Both osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis are treated with diet, rest, exercise, physical therapy, medication, and sometimes surgery. Although the condition usually occurs gradually, arthritis can be worsened by injury or obesity. Moreover, arthritis can make mobility difficult and lead to reduced exercise which increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Physical therapy and certain exercises can help reduce the pain of arthritis. Helpful exercises include stretching, balance and strengthening exercises as well as cardio. Rest and the use of hot and cold compresses can also relieve symptoms.
Analgesics such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin, as well as some stronger prescription treatments, are also commonly used to treat arthritis. Steroids or plasma injections can reduce inflammation. Joint replacement surgery is an option for the most severely affected patients.
Arthritis Prevention and Management
Osteoarthritis is not really a preventable condition. There’s no evidence that regular exercise will cause osteoarthritis, but certain intense exercise certainly can. For instance, running regularly on the pavement causes more stress to the body than running on softer surfaces and ensuring adequate suspension. Repetitive actions with strain or load can cause damage to the body over time. Certain high-stress activities, which can be occupational or sport-related, can lead to arthritis.
Certain measures can reduce the risk of developing inflammatory arthritis. Firstly, it is important not to smoke. Maintaining a healthy weight also lowers the risk of developing inflammatory arthritis and even osteoarthritis of the knees in particular. It has been shown that there are links between certain mouth bacteria and inflammatory arthritis. While these links are not yet fully understood, keeping good dental hygiene may be an important part of reducing the risk of autoimmune disease.
It is also known that there are interactions between food, the microbiome of bacteria in the gut, and arthritis. This is still an active area of medicine, with much research being conducted. There is no specific exclusionary diet that has been proven to be effective. A general balanced, healthy diet is recommended for both patients with arthritis and patients at risk of developing it.
It may be helpful include increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as fatty fish, chia and flax seeds and walnuts, increased Vitamin A, C and E (antioxidants) intake from foods such as berries, spinach, kidney beans and pecans, and getting enough fiber from whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.