When Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Nothing can be said to be certain, but death and taxes,” he was sorely mistaken, no pun intended. He would have been more accurate had he said, “Nothing is certain but death, taxes and arthritis.”
Yes, it is sad but true that arthritis is almost a certainty as we all grow older, or perhaps I should say more experienced with life. Arthritis is one of those conditions that sooner or later affect everyone. One can eat healthily, control their weight, exercise, get enough sleep, avoid tobacco and excess alcohol, keep their mind active – in other words do everything right – and they will still face the woes of arthritis as the years accumulate.
Arthritis comes in different forms and affects different people differently. Some types of arthritis are much more serious. And it can start at different ages. But in this article, written because May is Arthritis Awareness Month, I will limit myself to talking about osteoarthritis, the most common form.
Osteoarthritis is a condition where our joints begin to wear out. Joints are the places our bones come together. We have 360 joints in our body. That is a lot of joints for arthritis to potentially settle in. Fortunately, arthritis is usually limited to a few of our many joints.
When they are working well, joints are flexible and well-lubricated, so that our bones can move easily without creaking, stiffness and pain. When a joint develops arthritis, it becomes inflamed or irritated. The joint lining, usually made up of cartilage, can become rough or thinned out. As arthritis progresses, fluid can build up in the joint, making it swollen and stiff. Further along, the bones themselves can begin to suffer damage.
Arthritis is part of normal aging. Our joints grow old, just as does the rest of our body. But while our liver or kidneys or intestines may get older without causing any symptoms, when our joints age, they let us know. They start to hurt, get stiff and swell.
What can be done about arthritis? We cannot stop it from happening, but there things we can do to reduce its discomfort.
Modest exercise can be useful to keep the joints active. Stretching-type exercises, such as yoga, are generally better. If you are overweight, losing some of those pounds can take stress off the joints. Hot packs help some folks, though others feel better using cold packs on affected joints.
Medications can help, especially anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen. These are available over the counter and also by prescription. Occasionally, injecting an inflamed joint with cortisone will help. And in some cases, when all else has failed, some form of surgery will be needed. Your doctor is in the right position to give you specific advice on what approach will work best for your particular type of arthritis.
Unfortunately, arthritis is not curable. But the symptoms it causes can usually be reduced. So, continue to do the right things to take care of your overall health, and don’t take it as an insult if arthritis starts to creep up on you. Look at it as a sign that you are aging successfully.
Richard Fleming, MD, FACP is Regional Medical Director for Solano and Yolo Counties Health Services Department, and Partnership HealthPlan of California, a partner of Solano Coalition for Better Health.