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What is arthritis, and do I have it?

12:00am | & Health

All this week is Arthritis Care Week 2017, a UK-wide initiative urging people to ‘Wake up to Arthritis’.

That’s just what more than 10 million people in the UK do every day, although arthritis comes in many forms and with various levels of severity and impact on everyday life. Arthritis is the number one reason why people invest in an Acorn Stairlift, helping them cope better with the condition by removing the obstacle of stairs in their home.

We have previously worked with Arthritis Care, the leading UK charity behind this week’s Wake up to Arthritis campaign, to ensure our stairlift solutions are tailored to the needs of people living with the condition. Throughout this week our daily Acorn Stairlift blogs are supporting Arthritis Care Week 2017 by focusing on various aspects of the condition and ways to alleviate its symptoms. Today we look at just what is arthritis, and how would you know if you have it?

It’s not such a simple question as it sounds, as ‘arthritis’ is a very broad term covering more than 200 types of rheumatic disease; ‘rheumatic’ meaning aches and pains in the joints, bones and muscles. Usually thought of as an older peoples’ condition, arthritis can strike at any age, with around 12,000 children and 27,000 adults under 25 currently living with some form of arthritis in the UK.

However, the two most common types usually affect older people, and it is these we will look at. The first is osteoarthritis (OA), sometimes called ‘wear and tear arthritis’, and usually linked to ageing. Several different joints can be affected, but OA is most frequently found in the hands, knees, hips, feet and spine.

It is more common among women and can be triggered by an injury to a particular joint, even if it occurred many years previously. Although OA cannot be cured, the condition can settle down after a number of years and there are plenty of things that people living with it can do to relieve and lessen its effect, both in terms of medication and lifestyle.

The main symptoms of OA are stiff and painful joints, perhaps localised to a particular joint or more general throughout the body. Initial symptoms can be mild and easy to miss, but the stiffness tends to be worse after inactivity, such as waking up in the morning or after sitting for a period. It will often ‘wear off’ once you are more active. Joints may ‘creak’ or ‘crack’ when moved or you might have the sensation of a joint ‘giving way’, which usually means the muscles around it need strengthening.

Symptoms can vary and can come and go depending on things like your level of activity or even the weather. In more advanced cases, pain can become constant, leading to sleep disturbance, difficulty with everyday tasks and a negative impact on mental health.

The second most common type is rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This is an ‘autoimmune disease’ – in other words, one in which the body turns on itself by producing antibodies that attack its own tissues. RA is a progressive disease causing inflammation in the joints and, in many cases, resulting in painful deformity and immobility. It particularly affects fingers, wrists, feet and ankles.

One of the most unpredictable things about RA is that symptoms can come and go. Most people experience ‘flare-ups’, when inflammation, pain, swelling and stiffness get worse, lasting anything from a couple of days up to a month. The symptoms then go away for periods known as ‘remissions’. RA can also make you feel generally unwell and very tired, even if you are sleeping well.

As with OA, there is a good deal that can be done to tackle RA, both in slowing its progression and dealing with its effects. The key thing, with any rheumatic disease, is to have it diagnosed early so you know what you’re dealing with and how to go about it. If you think you might be suffering from a rheumatic disease, make an appointment with your doctor and explain your symptoms clearly.

You might be referred to a specialist for further investigation, but one in five GP visits involves the symptoms of arthritis, so rest assured, doctors are well-versed in finding the causes. Although there is currently no cure for arthritis, there is a great deal that can be done to manage the condition and its symptoms, helping people with arthritis lead full and active lives.

An invaluable resource here in the UK is national charity Arthritis Care. It is Britain's largest organisation working with and for people with arthritis, providing a wealth of help, advice, information and support. You can visit its website by clicking here, or call its free national helpline on 0808 800 4050. You can also download information-packed booklets on Living With Osteoarthritis and Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis.

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