Arthritis and what you can do about it if you're one of the UK's 10 million sufferers

Osteoarthritis commonly strikes in the fingers, making everyday tasks like typing painful.
Osteoarthritis commonly strikes in the fingers, making everyday tasks like typing painful.

Some 10 million people in the UK have arthritis, suffering from painful joints.

While there are many types, the two most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is one of the biggest causes of ill health in the western world, affecting as many as 8 million people in the UK alone - and most people will develop some degree of it during their lives.

It typically strikes in people over the age of 45 and can affect any joint in the body, but is normally seen in the large weight-bearing joints of the hip, knee and spine, and in the smaller joints of the fingers.

It may result from an inherited weakness in cartilage – the rubbery-type tissue that separates the bones – but lifestyle is important too, and there are steps you can take to protect your joints.

Contrary to common misconception, osteoarthritis is not a ‘wear and tear’ disease, and does not inevitably get worse as you get older.

You might not be able to change your age or your family history, but your weight is something you can control, the next biggest risk factor.

There is good evidence that the muscle tone associated with regular exercise helps protect the joints, but too much exercise can accelerate the process.

Regular walking or jogging shouldn’t cause arthritis of the knees or hips, although it may accelerate damage in people with pre-existing problems.

And a healthy diet - particularly one rich in vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables, and Omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish - may help slow the progression and ease joint pain and inflammation.

If you do suffer from osteoarthritis, paracetamol taken regularly is the first port of call to handle any pain or discomfort.

If that’s not effective, try an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like ibuprofen.

Topical NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen gel, are often useful for hand or knee arthritis. And corticosteroid injections into the joint are also sometimes used to fight inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis is much less common, but still affects an estimated 700,000 people in the UK.

It’s an autoimmune condition in which the antibodies that normally attack bacteria and viruses target the cells covering the joints, leaving them inflamed and sore.

Flare-ups are a common feature in this type of arthritis, and pain and stiffness may be worse in the morning.

If left untreated, joints can become permanently inflamed and misaligned, leading to disability.

Similar to osteoarthritis, regular over-the-counter painkillers can help RA sufferers cope with pain and discomfort – if you’re prescribed regular oral NSAIDs, you may need to take some extra medication to protect your stomach.

Early diagnosis is vital to start treatment and prevent the condition deteriorating, leading to permanent joint damage.

Because its symptoms are similar to other conditions, it can be hard for your GP to provide an accurate diagnosis, so you will need a referral to a hospital specialist to have blood tests.

That specialist can prescribe disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs to stop it getting worse, or biological treatments injected to stop the immune system attacking the joints.

There is still no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but these treatments can mean sufferers don’t suffer flare-ups for months or even years.

Once you have an accurate diagnosis for your joint pain, Pharmacy2U can provide free, convenient delivery of any prescription medication, when the prospect of walking to your local pharmacy can be too much to bear.

By Dr Alexandra Phelan

Dr. Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.

Manage your repeat prescriptions by going to www.pharmacy2u.co.uk/NHS or telephone 0800 031 9162