“Living with pain is a lonely place to be"
Overcoming challenges There are many different types of arthritis, but their common denominator is pain. We talked to a GP about the condition, it’s impact and what you can do to manage your pain.
The statistics might shock some people, admits Dr. Tom Margham, spokesperson for Arthritis Research UK, but the fact is that arthritis affects over 10 million people across the country, regardless of gender, race or class.
There's a myth that arthritis is 'an old person's disease'.
In the UK alone, one third of everyone aged 45 and over has sought treatment for osteoarthritis; while over 400,000 people of all ages have rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis has a huge impact on the everyday lives of everyone who as arthritis and on the lives of their families and friends too.
It's a condition that doesn't discriminate when it comes to age, either. “There's a myth that arthritis is 'an old person's disease',” says Margham. “As a GP, that's absolutely not my experience. Arthritis can affect people of all ages. In fact, 12,000 children in the UK have juvenile idiopathic arthritis and one-third of them will go on to have active disease in adulthood. That's a huge number. So regardless of your age, arthritis has a huge impact on people’s lives.”
Different arthritis conditions
Margham points out that arthritis is not one disease but a catch-all term which means 'inflammation of the joints' — and there is currently no cure for it. Arthritis-related conditions are the number one cause of disability in the UK.
- Osteoarthritis is the most common type. “This generally affects the larger weight-bearing joints: feet, ankles and predominantly knees and hips,” he says. “It can also affect the lower back, neck and hands. It's a condition where the body's normal repair process is out of balance with the impact joints are experiencing, resulting in symptoms of pain and joint stiffness.” Many factors can increase your risk of osteoarthritis, such as age, being overweight or joint injuries.
- Rheumatoid arthritis is the UK's second most common form: an autoimmune disease where the immune system starts attacking the body's own tissues, causing inflammation, pain and swelling in the smaller joints, typically in the hands and wrists. “It's important for someone diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis to start disease modifying treatment as early as possible,” says Margham. “Research by Arthritis Research UK found that there is a 12-week window in which to treat the condition after the onset of symptoms. The earlier this is done, the better the chance of getting rheumatoid arthritis under control and preventing longer-term joint damage.”
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis is joint inflammation that usually starts before the age of 16. The cause remains unknown, although different types display different symptoms and it's slightly more common in girls. “It has a connection with rheumatoid arthritis in that it's an autoimmune condition with similar symptoms, although it can affect any joint in the body,” says Margham. “A child who has a limp that isn't a result of an injury needs urgent assessment because, by and large, children shouldn't suffer with joint pain for long periods.”
The daily impact of arthritis
The common denominator with all three types of arthritis is pain. Nearly six out of 10 people living with arthritis say they experience pain every day; while eight out of 10 agree that society does not understand their condition because it ‘doesn’t look’ like they have anything seriously wrong with them.
Arthritis-related conditions are the number one cause of disability in the UK.
“One of the cruel things about arthritis is that it's invisible to other people,” says Margham. “Pain is a sensory experience that is unique to each individual. No-one can see it, and it can't be measured in any objective way. In that sense it's easily ignored. But living with pain is a lonely place to be.”
This makes day-to-day activities — such as carrying things, or getting dressed — extremely difficult.
“This, in turn, impacts on a person's ability to participate at work, study, socialise, or fulfil their role as a parent or grandparent,” says Margham. “It can be socially isolating and have a bearing on mood and sleep. Plus we know there is a connection between chronic pain and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.”
The needs of people with arthritis
As a GP, Margham sees someone with arthritis every day. “A lady came to see me recently who had terrible pain in her knees which was hugely problematic when it came to her work life; but it was also causing difficulties as a new grandparent because she couldn't look after her daughter's baby."
"...the ability to participate at work, study, socialise, or fulfil their role as a parent or grandparent.”
"I made a clinical diagnosis of osteoarthritis — it's important to give it a name rather than fobbing someone off by saying 'you have a touch of arthritis' — and was able to point her in the direction of top quality information via the Arthritis Research UK website and helpline so that she could really understand what was happening to her. Through connecting with the helpline she had information about the diagnosis, but also specific practical tips and advice about how to live with arthritis.”
Insight from Arthritis Research UK shows that millions of people with arthritis want information and advice so they can self-manage their condition.
“Research shows that their number one need is pain reduction,” says Margham. “Pain creates a lot of fear and reducing it improves quality of life. It's treatable in different ways; but the best way is to help someone understand what is going on is by giving them access to information that is personal to them — and connecting them with other people who share the same experience to help them manage their condition.”