Arthritis is stiffness, inflammation, and pain in the joints of the body. Some types of arthritis can be found in younger people, and some are more common in adults over the age of 55. However you experience arthritis, know that living with arthritis (and living fully) is possible. Here’s how.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Approximately nine million adults report having symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, while 13 million report symptomatic hand osteoarthritis.
Before discussing ways to make living with arthritis easier, it’s important to talk about the major types of arthritis, and how those can affect your lifestyle. Two of the main types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is a “wear and tear” condition that occurs when there is damage to the cartilage within the joints. This damage is associated with chronic pain, decreased range of motion, and stiffness or aches in the affected area. In severe cases, bone spurs can form causing what is called Herberden’s nodes that can further restrict movement, especially in the hands.
Bones come together to form the moveable joints in the body. The end of each bone is covered in cartilage, a soft tissue that helps bones slide across one another smoothly. As joints age and are used over a long period of time, it makes sense that they would become worn down. Once the cartilage becomes worn down, though, bone rubs on bone, causing pain and inflammation. This rubbing can also puncture the bursa, the small sacs of fluid that cushion each joint. Hips, hands, knees, and spine are the most common locations of osteoarthritis.
The causes of osteoarthritis are pretty straightforward due to the nature of the disease. Repetitive motion, either at work or in sport, can cause osteoarthritis, as can the simple act of aging. With repeated, long-term use, joints wear out and become painful. Injury or infection in the affected joint can hasten the process of degradation, but overall this is simply a process of age and use.
People over age 55 are most at risk, but osteoarthritis has become more prevalent in young athletes who practice their sport year-round.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disorder that results in systemic inflammation and pain in the joints. This inflammation in the synovial fluids of the joints is a result of the immune system responding to a perceived threat in the body and defending itself by essentially attacking itself.
More than one joint is usually affected in symmetrical fashion on each side of the body, as this is a systemic issue, and there will be periods of flare-up and remission. Other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include fever and fatigue. This chronic inflammation can cause permanent deformity in the joint, and symptoms do not need to be present for a long time for damage to occur. 80% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have an antibody called the rheumatoid factor.
There are no known causes of rheumatoid arthritis, but some research indicates that there may be a hereditary component to the disease. Other research points to infection or bacteria in the body as a trigger for the immune system to turn on itself. There are environmental factors that may play a role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, such as smoking, exposure to silica mineral, and periodontal disease, but again, there is no one cause pinpointed. It may be a combination of factors that work together.
Less common forms of arthritis
There are over 100 types of arthritis, and some of the less common forms share some characteristics, causes, and treatments with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Here are a few:
- Pseudogout is caused by calcium deposits in the knees that result in pain and inflammation
- Scleroderma is a condition that causes the skin to become thick and hard. Although this mostly affects skin, it can also affects the joints and result in a “frozen” joint that is difficult and painful to move.
- Lupus is the umbrella name given to a cluster of autoimmune disorders that can result in arthritis-like conditions in the joints of the body. Lupus is most common in women from ages 15 to 45 but can be found in all demographics of the population.
- Paget’s Disease causes bones to reform incorrectly and can result in the fracturing of the affected bone. This occurs most commonly in the pelvis, spine, skull, thighbone, and shinbone.
Many of these types of diseases have a hereditary component, but this is not always the case. Living with arthritis and their treatments are likewise tailored to each individual and their age, lifestyle, and disease progression. In some cases of severe bone deformities, surgery is indicated, but not always. The course of treatment is as individual as the disease itself.
Living with arthritis: Changes you can make at work
Ergonomics is defined as “fitting a job to a person.” In the case of someone with arthritis, this means finding ways to modify the workplace (and the home) to lessen the strain on arthritic joints and make life a little more comfortable.
Getting a good, ergonomic, adjustable office chair can have a big impact on arthritis pain. An uncomfortable chair can spawn a backache in no time, even for people without arthritis, so take advantage of that adjustable chair. Ways to improve chair comfort include:
- Get a swiveling, wheeled office chair to allow easy movement
- Make sure the chair has a 5-point base to ensure stability
- Get a chair with a height- and tilt-adjustable back that fits the lower back snugly
- Consider getting a chair with a headrest
- Adjust the arm height so arms are at a 90 degree angle when the wrists are resting on the desk
- If buying a new chair, test it out, and don’t forget to check that all the adjustments are easy to do
- Be sure that the chair fits properly
Adjusting the back, arms, and height of a chair is quite straightforward, but making sure that a chair fits properly isn’t so simple. Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of ergonomics and director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Program at Cornell University, gives some advice about getting a chair that fits correctly at the Arthritis Foundation:
“For the right fit, Hedge advises using the 1-inch seat rule. When sitting back, there should be at least a 1-inch gap between the edge of the seat and the backs of your knees, and the seat of the chair should be at least 1-inch wider than your hips and thighs. The chair’s back should be wide enough for your back, but not too wide to restrict arm movements, such as reaching 90 degrees to your sides.”
Next make a few ergonomic changes to the desktop arrangement to further lessen arthritis pain.
Keeping your neck bent at an uncomfortable angle can exacerbate an arthritic neck, so make sure everything’s at eye-level. This could mean raising the computer monitor, perhaps by putting a monitor stand under it. Also consider getting a document-holder so paper documents are at eye-level, too.
The hands and wrists are often affected by arthritis, too. Putting the mouse and keyboard on an adjustable tray can ensure that they’re on the correct level. Try to adjust chair and keyboard height so that while working, the forearms are parallel to the floor. Keeping the mouse next to the keyboard, instead of on a higher surface, can make sure that it’s not necessary to reach or bend forward.
Additionally, a padded wrist rest can provide support. In addition to a tilted keyboard or stand, a wrist rest can keep the wrists comfortably straight. A keyboard that can be split and tented, or a contoured keyboard, can also help with this. If using a mouse causes arthritis pain, a trackball or touchpad can provide a good alternative.
MedicineNet.com has a very comprehensive list of potential problems and ergonomic solutions, complete with pictures, for those who aren’t sure what to do about a specific issue. Also, the Arthritis Foundation has a list of good products to check out, like ergonomic desk chairs, monitor stands, and document holders. Websites like Relax the Back or AliMed carry a wide variety of ergonomic office supplies. If buying a new chair is out of the question, consider using a small pillow or rolled towel to provide some lumbar support. Lots of office supply stores carry ergonomic cushions and inserts to provide lumbar support, too.
Living with arthritis: Changes you can make at home
Changes at home can also make living with arthritis much easier.
Some of the same ergonomic tips utilized in the workplace can be applied at home, such as using a supportive chair. To make day-to-day chores simpler, identify activities that exacerbate arthritis pain. For example, if using a crank can opener makes an arthritic wrist twinge, get an electric can opener instead. If grasping a slick doorknob is difficult, add a doorknob cover or swap it for a lever-style doorknob.
Items with small handles can be problematic, so look for larger toothbrushes, hair brushes, silverware, razors, etc. Alternatively, look for cylindrical foam inserts to make your handles larger. Using pots or pans with two handles instead of one can help, too, since this distributes the weight more evenly. When getting dressed, long-handled reachers, sock aids, long-handled shoe horns, or buttonhooks can spare a lot of bending and grasping. Raised toilet seats, higher chairs, or high seat cushions can make sitting and standing much easier.
Altering the way an everyday activity is performed can alleviate arthritis discomfort, too. If arthritis pain makes wrist movement uncomfortable, for instance, use the hand to grip items and then use gross movements of the elbow and shoulder to perform the action. Using this method, instead of bending the wrist when drinking from a glass, keep the wrist still and instead move the elbow and shoulder.
Living with arthritis: Prevention and treatment
One of the best lifestyle changes for people with arthritis is to exercise. Activity aids in losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight), in addition to strengthening bones and muscles. Getting up during work breaks or taking a walk after dinner can also prevent joints from stiffening up. Movement helps to ameliorate the stiffness that comes with inactivity, and doctors advocate stretching and strengthening activities such as yoga and Pilates along with walking and other low-impact forms of exercise. Maintaining a healthy weight eases stress on the joints of the legs, which can help with pain if the affected joint is in the lower body.
For athletes, cross training and giving the body time to rest and recover are crucial for healthy joints. Focusing on strengthening the muscles around the joints most used also helps to prevent early onset osteoarthritis.
All patients with arthritis can benefit from changes in the diet to reduce inflammation and increase joint lubrication. Drinking plenty of water is key for joint lubrication, and taking vitamin D and calcium supplements can help strengthen the bone. Anti-inflammatory foods like ginger and tart red cherries can help manage pain and inflammation naturally.
Adding foods that help fight inflammation (e.g., turmeric, ginger, and capsaicin) may be helpful, as does increasing intake of omega-3s, which have been beneficial to patients in short-term studies. Avoiding gluten for those who are sensitive can also help fight inflammation.
Some patients also report good results from chiropractic care, acupuncture, and biofeedback.
Doctors will often recommend trying over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) first. Prescription treatments for osteoarthritis can also include corticosteroid injections directly into the affected joint to reduce inflammation and pain.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Treatments focus on slowing down or preventing further damage while building up and strengthening muscles and tendons surrounding the affected joint. Doctors may prescribe “first-line drugs” such as aspirin and corticosteroids to deal with pain and inflammation while the slower-acting “second-line drugs” have a chance to start working. These “second-line drugs” include things drugs such as methotrexate. This can help slow or stop joint destruction. Methotrexate may also encourage remission of the disease.
No matter what form of arthritis you’re suffering from, living with arthritis in a better way is possible. To learn more about your options, talk to a pain specialist. They can diagnose the cause of your pain and suggest treatments that work. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.