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Arthritis, Joint Pain

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What is it?

Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints, which results in pain, swelling, stiffness, and limited movement. There are over 100 different types of arthritis.

The three most significant – osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout – account for more than 95 per cent of cases in Australia.

Arthritis involves the breakdown of cartilage. Cartilage normally protects the joint, allowing for smooth movement. Cartilage also absorbs shock when pressure is placed on the joint, like when you walk. Without the usual amount of cartilage, the bones rub together, causing pain, swelling (inflammation), and stiffness.

Arthritis-related problems include pain, stiffness, inflammation and damage to joint cartilage (the tissue that covers the ends of bones, enabling them to move against each another) and surrounding structures. This can result in joint weakness, instability and deformities that can interfere with the most basic daily tasks such as walking, driving a car and preparing food.

Living with pain can be one of the hardest parts of having arthritis.

Arthritis is not yet curable. While the condition is usually manageable, it invariably impacts on a patient's quality of life and includes varying degrees of discomfort and pain.   

The most common forms of arthritis are:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Gout
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Juvenile arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
  • Scleroderma

  

What causes it?

Arthritis pain can be caused by:

  • Inflammation (the process that causes heat and swelling in joints)
  • Damage to the joints (including general wear and tear)
  • Injuries (including broken bones)
  • Muscle tension, from trying to protect joints from painful movements
  • An autoimmune disease (the body attacks itself because the immune system believes a body part is foreign)
  • For some conditions, such as fibromyalgia, the cause of the pain is not fully understood.

Often, the inflammation goes away after the injury has healed, the disease is treated, or the infection has been cleared.

With some injuries and diseases the inflammation does not go away or destruction results in long-term pain and deformity. When this happens, you have chronic arthritis.  

Who is most prone to arthritis?

Arthritis is the major cause of disability and chronic pain in Australia.

It affects people of all ages and from all walks of life. The most common forms of arthritis – osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout – are more likely to occur as we age.About 3.85 million Australians are affected by various forms of arthritis at a cost to the economy of more than $23.9 billion each year in medical care and indirect costs such as loss of earnings and lost production. (According to latest Arthritis Australia research).  

Common treatments

There may not be a cure for your pain but you can learn to manage it.

A wide range of medical professionals and natural therapists are available to help manage arthritis symptoms. 

 

Common treatments include:

  • Medicines

Many different types of medicines can help control the pain of arthritis, including painkillers, non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Your doctor or pharmacist can help you understand which medicines are right for you and how best to use them.  

  • Exercise

Research has shown that regular appropriate exercise can help reduce pain. It also keeps your joints moving, strengthens muscles to support your joints, reduces stress and improves sleep. A health professional (such as a physiotherapist) or your doctor can help you work out a suitable program.  

  • Massage

There are limited scientific studies that show massage reduces arthritis pain. However many people with arthritis find it a useful way to relax and reduce muscle tension. Make sure the massage therapist has experience working with people who have arthritis.  

  • Acupuncture

There are mixed results from studies of acupuncture for arthritis. However some people may find it useful alongside other proven treatments, such as medicines.  

  • Use of heat and cold

The benefits of heat and cold for arthritis are yet to be proven by research. However, these treatments are soothing and safe when used carefully. Heat relaxes your muscles and stimulates blood circulation, while cold numbs the painful area and reduces swelling.

Ask your doctor or physiotherapist whether heat or cold is best for you.  

  • Mind techniques

Relaxation and mind techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing and visualisation (mental pictures), can help you reduce stress and muscle tension.  

These techniques need to be practised and you may have to try several methods before finding one that works for you.

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About Pain does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment