According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding the condition. The Mayo Clinic reports that the word, “arthritis,” means “inflammation of a joint,” but the biggest misconception is that arthritis only involves minor aches and pains, and is due to the aging process. The fact is, it is a complex grouping of musculoskeletal disorders made up of over 100 various diseases and conditions that affect people of all genders, ages and races.
The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis attributes to a large amount of missing work time, as well as many serious disability problems. Arthritis mainly strikes adults, yet even children and teenagers can also develop it in the form of rheumatoid juvenile arthritis. Medical science categorizes arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions into three classifications:
- Inflammatory Arthritis – This includes rheumatoid arthritis, gout and ankylosing spondylitis.
- Non-Inflammatory Arthritis – Conditions like scoliosis, osteoarthritis and torn ligaments fall into this category.
- Connective Tissue Disease – Lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and sclerosis, among others are included in this type of arthritis.
Overuse or Injury: Osteoarthritis
With osteoarthritis, inflammation occurs due to trauma to a joint, like a fracture or break, or simply due to the wear and tear from overuse. The articular cartilage, or the smooth covering on the ends of bones, wears away or becomes thin. Osteoarthritis can happen in one or more of the weight bearing joints of the body, which are the most painful areas, as well.
Sports athletes often suffer from osteoarthritis due to the repetitive usage of certain parts of the body. As this cartilage covering begins to thin, bone growths or spurs can develop along the rim of an osteoarthritic joint, causing pain and swelling. Sclerosis, or hardening of the bone, can occur as well as inflammation making it difficult to move without pain. Doctors diagnose osteoarthritis using x-rays.
A Whole Body Disease: Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is when the lining of the joint becomes inflamed as the result of a disease process that affects the whole body. Unlike osteoarthritis, doctors diagnose rheumatoid arthritis using a blood test. What they look for are a number of substances specific to RA, including the RA factor, abnormal antibodies, high levels of uric acid and several other arthritis red flags.
What happens is the immune system that is supposed to protect your body begins to create substances that can attack it, instead. This causes the joint linings to swell and invade the surrounding tissues. The body reacts by producing chemical substances that actually attack and damage the joints. Although not necessary for a diagnosis, x-rays are still important for viewing the actual damage and progression of the disease in the various joints of the body.
RA is a long-term disease that affects an estimated one percent of the world population. In children and teens, doctors refer to it as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Women are three times more likely to develop the disease than men are, but its development slows down with age. Although it affects many parts of the body, rheumatoid arthritis mainly affects the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects both small and large joints, including the spine. Symptoms include pain, swelling and stiffness, whether or not the patient uses the joint. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis can cause similar symptoms in children and teens, but there are some differences, including:
Approximately half of all affected children will outgrow RA, whereas most adults never do. This is because the number of children with the RA factor in their blood is less than half, compared to affected adults, who usually test at 70 to 80 percent.
Determining the Arthritis Diagnosis
Physicians diagnose arthritis by conducting a careful evaluation of symptoms, as well as a physical examination to check the skin, joints and muscle strength. X-rays can uncover the extent of damage to the joints. Blood tests and other laboratory tests can also help determine the exact type of arthritis.
Some of the symptoms of arthritis include:
- Areas that are tender to the touch.
- Muscle weakness or atrophy.
- Limited movements of the joints.
- Painful and swollen joints, sometimes in multiple areas.
- Pain when moving the joint or area.
If your doctor diagnoses you with arthritis, they may refer you to another healthcare professional, such as a specialist like a rheumatologist or physiotherapist. You may also receive a prescription medication to help control the disease, and reduce the pain and inflammation.
Some people may feel frustrated, as these symptoms can lead to a loss of strength and grip, making it harder to move around and carry out daily tasks. This does not mean you need to give up an active lifestyle, but you may need to make some changes in how you do things.
The Early Days: Strategies for Symptom Management
Most people are shocked, confused and anxious when they first receive the diagnosis of arthritis. With arthritis, you will have good days and bad days, but there are many tools you can use to limit the amount of bad days. The symptoms vary, too. While some people experience a dull, persistent pain, others have a sharp, stabbing pain – and some people have a combination of both.
One way to get control of your arthritis is to keep moving. If you are overweight, losing even a small amount will make a big difference in your pain and your mobility. You don’t have to run a marathon, though, the following activities can help combat the loss of motion and strength:
- Walking and Biking
- Exercises like Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates
The key is to move as much as you can comfortably. If a certain activity bothers you, try another, until you find the one the works best for you. Look for something you enjoy doing so you’ll be more likely to make it a healthy habit. Remember to change it up, too. Combine these three types of exercises for the best results and the least pain:
- Strengthening: Strengthens the muscles that support your joints, includes weight lifting and floor exercises.
- Aerobics: Increases your heart rate and strengthens your heart muscle, and enables all your muscles to move more efficiently; includes biking, walking, household chores and dancing.
- Range of Motion: Helps maintain strength, flexibility and a straighter posture; includes stretching and bending movements.
Adopt a “Can Do” Attitude
The best way to deal with any disease or condition, including arthritis, is to concentrate on the things you can do, instead of the things you can’t. You may not be able to lift weights, instead you might be able do some simple stretching and core exercises. You may have trouble opening a can, but you can always use an electric can opener. Those stairs may not be welcoming on those achy days, but the escalator or elevator is there for you to use anytime you need them. Here are more things you can do to empower yourself:
- Learn all you can about arthritis. Educating yourself and your loved ones about your condition will lessen your anxiety about it. Find out as much as you can, so you’ll have the tools to achieve a higher quality of life.
- Partner up with your healthcare provider. Ask your doctor all the questions you have about your diagnosis. Work together to create a treatment plan to follow. Touch base often, not just on bad days, and let your doctor know what is working for you and what isn’t. If a treatment isn’t working for you, ask for alternatives.
- Take in some talk therapy. Join a support group and share your experiences with others. It is a great comfort to know you are not alone, and you can pick up some useful tips, too. Attend workshops and self-care seminars, too, so you can exchange ideas and keep up with medical innovations and new treatments.
- Follow doctor’s orders. Just because you’re having a good day, that doesn’t mean you can skip your medications, exercises or any other part of your treatment program. Be consistent, and it will pay off for you over time. If you find it impossible to do what your doctor instructed, contact them to discuss it and find another solution. Be proactive and positive.
Dealing with Daily Life: Household Chores and More
One of the hardest part of having arthritis is the simple act of moving. You may want to rest often, but that is the worst thing you can do. The less you move, the more the pain and swelling will increase, which will cause you to move even less. This is an unending cycle of pain and despair, so avoid it all all costs.
There are many things we need to do each day to function well, from daily showers and dressing, to household chores, like dishes, cooking and cleaning. And, in fact, many household tasks are helpful for arthritis pain and stiffness.
For example, mopping, sweeping or vacuuming the floors is an effective aerobic exercise. Washing dishes in warm, soothing water can loosen up the joints in your hands and fingers. Gardening is a wonderful way to work out your entire body, while soaking up the sunshine and fresh air. Be smart and use plenty of sunscreen and insect protection, though.
Simple Self-Care Strategies
Arthritis.org reports that there are many ease of use products on the web today. Even if you can’t afford the latest gadgets, there are many ways to make life easier, even on your bad days. Arthritis Today suggests the following strategies for those living with arthritis:
- Sleep Better: If you have trouble sleeping at night, avoid drinking beverages with caffeine in the afternoon. Shut off the computer or any bright lights at least an hour before bedtime. Create a nightly routine that will signal your body clock that it’s time to rest.
- Practice Sun Safety: Always use sunscreen, wear a hat and UV-protection sunglasses. For sunscreen, it can be difficult to squeeze the tube and rub it in, so opt for the spray or mist type that goes on dry.
- Get a Grip: If your paint brush, hairbrush, toothbrush, pen, screwdriver or any other household object is hard for you to grip, slide a foam roller from a large sponge hair curler or roller over the handle to make it easier for you to hold securely.
- Manage Stress: To relieve stress, take a break from your work every 30 minutes. Take a short walk around the office or go outside. Have a glass of water, a healthy snack, or do a few stretches to get the blood flowing and relieve stiffness.
- Be Creative: If your arthritis pain keeps you from doing your favorite activities, try a modification of it. For example, if you love to travel, visit a local art gallery or museum instead.
- Practice Pet Therapy: Caring for a pet can help you be more active and it can lift your spirits, too. Take your dog for daily walks. You will both will get some sunshine, fresh air and exercise, too. If you can’t walk that far, consider tossing a toy around the house and playing with your pet more often.
- Keep Playing: If you have trouble holding on to a pair of dice, toss them in a cup or mug to pour them out. Can’t shuffle those cards? There are many automatic card shufflers on the market today.
- Pain Free Sipping: If it is too painful to hold a heavy mug or glass, get some tall, bendable straws so you can to drink from a glass without having to pick it up.
Tips for Tackling Household Chores
Here are some helpful shortcuts and tips for keeping your house clean with limited mobility:
- Shrink Your Chores: Instead of trying to clean your entire home in one day, break it up, cleaning one room a day. You can also focus on the areas with the highest traffic. You may only need to vacuum the hallway that leads from your doorway to your kitchen, for example.
- Find the Right Tools: When you shop, look for packaging and products that are easy to handle. Buy concentrated detergents and other products in smaller bottles. Stash your cleaning tools and products on each floor of your home, such as mops near the kitchen and a lightweight vacuum cleaner upstairs.
- Tackle Messes: Clean up messes before they set in, making it easier to clean. Let the cleaning solution do the work by applying it and then giving it time to work before wiping it clean.
- Be Cleverly Creative: Common household objects can make life easier. For instance, to dust without a lot of bending and reaching, staple a dust rag to a long gift rag tube. To tidy your bed, use a wooden pizza paddle to tuck in blankets and bed sheets, and buy lightweight bedspreads and comforters. Wear an old pair of socks or gloves to hand dust your home quickly.
Where to Go for More Help and Information
A common misconception is that there is not much that people can do for their arthritis. In fact, there are many ways to manage this condition. New research studies and projects for treatment are constantly being conducted and even a potential cure is on the way. Here are some valuable resources for arthritis patients:
- NIAMS: The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse supports research into the causes, prevention and treatment of arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases. They also promote the training of scientists to do groundbreaking research, as well as provide information on the progress of such research on this and related diseases.
- Arthritis Foundation: The Arthritis Foundation’s wants to make the world free from pain by improving lives via their leadership in the control, prevention, treatment and cures for arthritis and other related diseases. You will also find a support group directory, here, as well as an event directory in order to get more involved.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Founded back in 1933, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons is the top provider of musculoskeletal education for orthopaedic surgeons and other medical specialists and researchers all over the globe. Their medical education events include their world-famous Annual Meeting, CME courses, and at the Orthopaedic Learning Center, as well as the production of medical and scientific publications and electronic media materials to educate and inform.
- American College of Rheumatology: The American College of Rheumatology wants to advance the science of rheumatology, representing more than 9,400 rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals all over the world. The ACR offers support for innovative work and research, funds research, education, advocacy and practices, with 90 cents for every dollar donated ending in awards and grants.
Arthritis is a tough diagnosis for anyone to receive, yet it doesn’t have to mean your life is over. Your doctor can help you create a treatment plan that will help you live better, and by working closely with them, you can monitor your progress and adjust your plan of action. There are many organizations that provide information, resources and support, too. You are not alone. Many people have arthritis and are living life to the fullest regardless of the pain and inflammation, so get out there and enjoy life again.