It’s estimated around 10 million people in the UK have arthritis, and although it’s often seen as an older person’s affliction, anyone can get it – including children.
Broadly speaking, arthritis means pain, swelling and stiffness related to inflammation in a joint or joints.
There are several different types, including chronic autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, but the most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis.
This is the type that’s generally associated with wear-and-tear over time, and Versus Arthritis, a new merger between Arthritis Care and Arthritis Research UK says it affects some 8.75 million of us.
The pain and restricted movement caused by arthritis means it can be very debilitating and have a significant impact on day-to-day life.
While genetics can play a key role in developing it, osteoarthritis can also be linked to lifestyle factors, which means there are a number of steps many of us can take to help lower the risk.
Here, Mr Panos Gikas, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at The Lister Hospital in London, part of HCA Healthcare UK (hcahealthcare.co.uk), outlines seven ways to reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis…
1. Maintain movement
Regular exercise and being physically active isn’t just important for keeping your cardiovascular health in good shape, it’s essential for keeping joints happy too.
“There’s a common misconception that the onset of arthritis is brought about by people wearing their joints out as a result of too much physical activity,” says Gikas.
“But this thinking is very outdated and we now understand the importance of keeping the body physically mobile for as long as possible.”
Studies looking at the relationship between regular recreational exercise and osteoarthritis of the knee have generally found no ill-effects, he notes.
“Unfortunately there’s been confusion around the role exercise plays, but it’s imperative that everyone keeps active in order to maintain their range of movement.”
Remember, just getting outside for a daily walk counts – think in terms of being generally active and moving your body regularly, and avoiding being too sedentary.
2. Be mindful of muscles
“Another important factor that everyone should be aware of is maintaining good musculoskeletal strength,” stresses Gikas.
“Again, this is achieved by regular, moderate exercise which will help to keep the bones and joints healthy, and should be carried out by people of all ages.”
As well as helping prevent arthritis, good muscular strength can help to reduce the chances of lower back problems, osteoporotic fractures and other muscular based injuries.
Ways to improve or maintain musculoskeletal strength include weight-bearing exercises, such as weight training, walking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing.
3. But don’t overdo it
While regular exercise at all ages is essential for lowering the risk of arthritis, Gikas notes that overdoing exercise can be detrimental.
“Keeping fit and healthy is essential, but actively doing an exercise or activity which over-exerts the joints could cause problems and ultimately lead to the onset of the condition,” he explains.
He says evidence shows the risk of osteoarthritis relates more to the intensity of the level of sport participation (elite vs recreational) and particularly the presence and/or likelihood of a joint injury.
But he stresses that a moderate level of exercise, five times a week, is usually ideal for most people and will help ensure joints remain healthy.
4. Body weight is key
Hand-in-hand with regular exercise, another important way people can lower their risk of arthritis is by maintaining a healthy body weight.
Gikas explains that when you exercise, the amount of pressure felt by your knee joint is estimated as being the equivalent of seven times your body weight.
Therefore, if body weight is kept within the ‘healthy’ BMI (body mass index) range, you’ll be putting less pressure on your joints, and subsequently reduce the risk of causing a problem. A healthy BMI is anywhere between 18.5-25.
5. Look out for food triggers
“Not only should you be mindful of diet in terms of your body weight, it’s also important to understand that certain foods or food groups can trigger inflammation – the primary cause of arthritis,” warns Gikas.
Foods or types of food to watch out for include sugar, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, gluten, and alcohol. He recommends those making an effort to avoid arthritis should try to keep to a diet rich in good fats, such as fish, avocado and nuts and seeds.
6. Do your best to avoid injury
Try to avoid injuries to your bones and joints, either through playing sport and exercising or in day-to-day life, because if you sustain a cartilage-based injury within a joint, it can cause it to wear out much quicker than normal, possibly resulting in osteoarthritis.
The risk of joint injuries can increase depending on the level of participation in a sport, so if you’re an avid exerciser or perform to an elite level, make sure you always use the correct equipment when playing sports, and ensure that when exercising, you’re using the correct techniques.
7. Seek medical help quickly
“If an injury is sustained, seeking specialist medical advice as soon as possible is very important in order to reduce the risk of arthritis,” explains Gikas.
“Repetitive traumas are a key driver of the condition, so if you don’t get an injury treated properly from the outset, you could cause yourself significant damage further down the line.”
If you’re injured, prompt medical attention means a doctor will be able to assess the problem and recommend treatment, such as physical therapy, dietary changes, and exercises to help rebuild strength.