Arthritis is Australia’s number one most crippling disease and the most common chronic disease in people over 40. Arthritis affects over 3.85 million Australians or 18% of the population and by 2050, 7 million Australians will suffer from arthritis. The total cost of arthritis to the Australian economy was estimated to be $23.9 billion by Access Economics in 2007. Arthritis generally afflicts people between the ages of 20 and 50, but can affect all ages, even infants. The average age of onset is 47 and about three out of every five people with arthritis are under 65 years of age.
There are actually over 120 different forms of arthritis. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Although both have similar symptoms, both happen for different reasons. When joints are overused and misused, the results can be OA. What happens is that the cushioning cartilage that protects the joint breaks down, resulting in the bones rubbing together. This generally happens in the knees, but can be found in the hips, spine and hands often, too. And only in later stages will a person most often feel pain, after quite a bit of cartilage is lost.
The second type, RA, refers to the body’s immune system attacking joint tissue. Still not fully understood, this condition most often starts in a person’s hands, wrists and feet. Then it advances to shoulders, elbows and hips. Similar symptoms include pain, stiffness, fatigue, weakness, slight fever and inflamed tissue lumps under the skin. And both OA and RA generally develop symmetrically, i.e. affecting the same joints on both the left and right sides of the body.
The medical approach to arthritis revolves around medications that reduce the inflammation, therapy to improve joint mobility and finally surgery to clean out, replace or fuse an arthritic joint. Unfortunately this approach is only a treatment once the condition has already occurred and usually only improves the symptoms.
Arthritis is a serious problem in our community, however like many of the chronic disease that affect us, the cause is often due to lifestyle and thus the prevention and treatment also needs to focus around lifestyle.
So what can you do to either prevent or reduce the effects of arthritis?
Eat Well: With any chronic condition what we eat and drink is extremely important. Firstly being overweight will affect arthritic conditions, forcing some joints to carry more of a load. This added weight stresses the joints and affects your posture causing overuse and more pressure on bones and joints, particularly in weight bearing joints like the ankle, knee, hip and spine.
Importantly our body utilizes the minerals, vitamins and amino acids (building blocks of protein), it derives from the foods we eat to repair itself from day to day trauma. Thus if you aren’t eating a balanced diet rich in minerals and vitamins, joint decay will occur.Also it is important that most of the food we eat is fresh and unpackaged. Most food that is packaged or pre-prepared, has a host of chemicals, flavourings, additives and preservatives that cause inflammation and immunological reactions in our body, either enhancing the effects of arthritis or even being the cause of some of the inflammatory arthritis’s.
There are also dietary supplements for arthritis sufferers. Some common ones are chondroitin, fish oil and glucosamine. Chondroitin can draw fluid into the cartilage, improving shock-absorbing ability and weight control, as more weight equals more joint pressure. Fish oils help with controlling inflammation in the body and glucosamine is effective for the long-term relief of osteoarthritis pain. In some people, glucosamine appears to even slow the deterioration of joints over time and reinforce joint cartilage.
Move Well: Exercise in general is vital in preventing or delaying the onset of arthritis and very beneficial to arthritis suffers. Firstly, our bodies are designed to move and our joints are designed to move through their full range of motion regularly. Stiff joints and tight muscles compact and tear away at joint tissue. Lack of mobility results in less lubrication to the joint and hence earlier onset of arthritis. Exercise should always consist of 3 components: Flexibility, strength and endurance.
Unfortunately most people who exercise only do one or maybe two components. When this happens, exercise can actually aggravate or even cause arthritis. Eg Someone who only lifts weights may be very strong, but will have poor flexibility and endurance, promoting joint damage. A few types of exercise that are very beneficial are vigorous walking, yoga, pilates, swimming, cross training and water aerobics to name a few. Please consult with your health practitioner before beginning any exercise regime.
Sleep Well: It goes without saying that good sleep is paramount in preventing and reducing the effects of all chronic diseases. Our body heals and repairs itself at night. Thus reduced sleep time equates to reduce healing time. Not only that, our body mostly heals when we are in our deepest sleep. So you may be getting 8 hours sleep a night, but if you are very restless and are unable to reach this deep sleep pattern, you won’t heal as well.
Things that reduce good sleep are: stress, caffeine, alcohol, medications (including sleeping tablets), digesting heavy meals (eating too late or large amount of red meat) and shift work. Poor sleeping posture (like sleeping on your stomach) and inappropriate bedding (mattress and pillows) can also cause and increase arthritis.
Think Well: A positive mind set and attitude is a vital part of our wellbeing. Thoughts are energy and bad thoughts can have a negative effect on all aspects of our health. Stress also has a negative impact on arthritis due to increased muscle tension and the release or stress hormones which increase joint inflammation. Managing stress in our lives is very important as it has a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing. Some ways to reduce stress are; meditation, yoga, exercise, simplify your life, set goals, avoid drugs and alcohol, seek support and education, make time for humour and fun and manage time and conserve energy.
Healthy Spine and Nervous System: Last, but certainly not least our spine and nervous system play a crucial role in the prevention of arthritis and has shown to have incredible benefits to arthritis suffers.
It is important to remember, that our nervous system controls and coordinates every function and cellular response in our body. Poor or reduced nerve supply to a joint will cause the joint not to repair correctly and will cause the joint to become arthritic. Thus if a person’s spine is under stress or misaligned, nerve pressure or tension will result and the tissue or area of our body that nerve supplies will not function or heal as it should. Eg the nerves in the lower neck or cervical spine, control how the hands move, feel and of course repair. Nerve pressure in the lower neck will affect the healing and movement of the joints in the hand and thus lead to arthritis.
This is the reason why some patients who have stiff and arthritic hands, begin chiropractic care and notice improved movement and reduced swelling in the hands and fingers, however no treatment or therapy was applied to the hands, only the spine.Also misaligned (or subluxated) spinal joints will decay or become arthritic due to increased tension and poor movement. A poorly aligned and moving spine will also present itself as poor posture. Poor posture and uneven body symmetry will also increase the likelihood of developing arthritis due to extra forces and tension being applied to muscles, ligaments discs and bones.
Remember: Our posture is the window to our spine, which is the widow to our nervous system and our health.
Arthritis, like any disease, is a sign our body is not functioning properly. Treating the symptoms of arthritis may offer you pain relief but will never improve your situation, only prolong its duration.
Focus on the cause and help your body to heal itself will prevent arthritis from happening in the first place and give you the best outcome for a healthier and productive life.