Understanding arthritis

Posted on 3 June 2015

We asked Dr Ingrid Louw, a rheumatologist at Mediclinic Panorama, to bust some common myths surrounding arthritis.

1. Arthritis is arthritis. There’s only one kind.
FICTION There are at least 100 types of arthritis; some such as osteoarthritis (OA) are very common and some quite rare. There are two major types of arthritis: osteoarthritis, which results from overuse of joints and the natural process of ageing, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory type that is related to the body’s immune system not working properly. With OA, the ‘shock-absorbing’ cartilage that covers bones gradually wears away, resulting in bone rubbing against bone (hence the chronic pain). RA, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease that occurs when a malfunctioning immune system attacks the body’s tissues. The joints are the main areas affected by this and over time can become damaged and deformed.

Gout is another type of arthritis and is caused by crystals that collect in the joints.

2. Potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and certain other foods increase the risk of getting arthritis.
FICTION Only gout, a condition characterised by recurrent attacks of acute inflammatory arthritis, is linked to certain foodstuffs. A major symptom of gout is a tender, swollen, inflamed joint – and it’s often the big toe. Gout is caused by high levels of uric acid in the body, which is produced through the metabolism of certain foods, such as oily fish. The other types of arthritis are not caused by food. Some people, however, do experience joint pain when they eat very acidic foods.

3. People with arthritis may be in pain but they can still work.
FACT With OA, some joints may be painful and even need replacement, but people can generally continue to work. With the newer RA treatments, namely biologics (see number six), people remain fully functional.

4. Only old people get arthritis.
FICTION Although 50% of people older than 45 get OA, the inflammatory types of arthritis can strike even in children and young people. Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, affects almost one percent of the population and usually starts between 40 and 60 years of age. Arthritis can appear in anyone at any time, regardless of age, physical condition or ethnic background.

5. Cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis.
FICTION Joint cracking is not a good idea as it can cause repetitive strain to the joint, but not arthritis.

6. There’s nothing you can do to treat arthritis. You just have to live with it.
FICTION OA can’t be prevented or stopped with medication, but the symptoms can be controlled with pain and anti-inflammatory medication. RA can be well controlled with biologic therapies such as Enbrel, Orencia and Actemra, but early diagnosis is recommended for the best outcome.
To diagnose arthritis, your doctor will consider your symptoms, perform a physical exam to check for swollen joints or loss of motion, and use blood tests and X-rays to confirm the diagnosis.

7. Glucosamine supplements can rebuild the joints.
FICTION Glucosamine is an amino sugar that forms part of the structure of chitosan and chitin, which some crustacean exoskeletons are composed of. Glucosamine hasn’t been shown to build or even protect cartilage in humans, but it may help with pain and stiffness of OA joints.

8. You should avoid exercise if you have arthritis.
Fiction The correct exercise can be very beneficial by keeping the muscles that support the joints strong, preventing them from stiffening up. Arthritis patients should avoid exercise that strains the joints and rather aim for water-based exercises or cycling.

9. Copper bracelets can ease arthritis pain.
Fiction But some people have a very strong belief that they do – despite no scientific basis.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Prime

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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