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Living with arthritis: how to stay active and independent.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis means inflammation of the joints. It causes pain and usually also limits movement of the joints that are affected. There are many kinds of arthritis. A type called osteoarthritis is the most common. Osteoarthritis is also called degenerative arthritis. But it doesn't usually cause severe crippling.

What causes osteoarthritis

The exact cause is not known. A person may be at increased risk of osteoarthritis because it runs in the family. It seems to be related to the wear and tear put on joints over the years in most people. But wear and tear doesn't by itself cause osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is not an inevitable result of aging or of wear and tear of the joint.

What happens when a joint is affected

Normally, a smooth layer of cartilage acts as a pad between the bones of a joint. Cartilage helps the joint move easily and comfortably. In some people, the cartilage thins as the joints are used. This is the start of osteoarthritis. Over time, the cartilage wears away and the bones rub against one another.

The cartilage in people with osteoarthritis degenerates abnormally. As osteoarthritis gets worse, the breakdown of cartilage happens faster than the body can repair it.

Bones may even start to grow too thick on the ends where they meet to make a joint, and bits of cartilage and bone may loosen and get in the way of movement. This can cause pain, joint swelling and stiffness.

Who gets osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is more common in older people because they have been using their joints longer. Using the joints to do the same task over and over or simply using them over time can make osteoarthritis worse.

Younger people can also get osteoarthritis. Athletes are at risk because they use their joints so much. People who have jobs that require the same movement over and over are also at risk.

Is there a treatment

No cure for osteoarthritis has been found, but you don't have to become disabled. The fight plan can help you stay active, protect your joints from damage, limit injury and control pain.

Will my arthritis get worse?

Osteoarthritis does tend to get worse over time. But you can do many things to help yourself.

It is important to stay as active as possible. When joints hurt, people tend not to use them and the muscles get weak. This can cause contractures (stiff muscles) and you can lose your range of motion--it gets harder to get around. This causes more pain and the cycle begins again. Ask your doctor to discuss pain control with you, so that you can stay active and avoid this problem.

How arthritis will affect you also depends on your total health. For example, being too heavy means your joints have to carry the extra weight. This can make osteoarthritis get worse faster and bother you more. This is especially true for arthritis of weight-bearing joints--like your hips, knees and spine. Losing weight could lessen your symptoms if you are heavy.

Will medicine help?

Medicine you can buy without a prescription that reduces inflammation--such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Medipren, Motrin, Nuprin)--or painkillers--such as acetaminophen (Datril, Excedrin, Panadol, Tylenol)--can help you feel better. For most people, medicine that reduces inflammation is the most helpful.

Medicine should be used smartly. You only need the amount that makes you feel good enough to keep moving. Using, too much medicine may cause side effects. If you often take medicine that doesn't require a prescription, your doctor may give you a prescription medicine that can be taken less often to relieve pain. Talk to your family doctor about what is right for you. Watch out for false "cures" that you may see advertised in magazines or newspapers.

Are special assistive devices or aids really helpful?

Yes. Special devices have been designed to help people with arthritis stay independent for as long as possible. These devices help protect your joints and keep you moving. For example, if you learn to use a cane the right way, you can help reduce the amount of pressure your weight puts on your hip joint by up to 60%.

Will exercise really help?

Exercise keeps your muscles strong and helps keep you flexible. This will help you stay independent. But don't overdo it. Exercise in small amounts through the day with rest time in between. This will help you avoid injury and pain by not trying to do too much at once.

Exercises that don't strain your joints are best. These may include tightening your muscles and then relaxing them a number of times. You can do this with all of your major muscles several times throughout the day.

Another good exercise for arthritis is movement in a swimming pool, with much of your body's weight held up by the water. You may find this type of "aquacise" program through a local YMCA, YWCA or other pool in your community.

Ask your family doctor what programs are available in your area. He or she may also suggest that you see a physical therapist to get you started.

Should I use heat or cold to ease pain?

Using heat or cold may reduce your pain and stiffness. Heat can be applied through warm baths, hot towels, hot water bottles or heating pads. Ice packs can also be used to help make you feel better.

Try alternating heat with ice packs. Some people find that using heat before activity and cold after activity is useful. Try different combinations and see what works best for you. Everyone is different.

Tips on staying active

* Lose weight if you are overweight.

* Exercise regularly in brief sessions.

* Go to a physical therapist if you can.

* Use assistive devices to protect your joints.

* Avoid lifting heavy things.

* Avoid overusing your joints.

* Don't pull on objects to move them - push them instead.

* Take your medicine the way your doctor suggests.

* Use heat or cold to reduce pain or stiffness.

Assistive devices or aids

* Canes

* Walkers

* Splints

* Shoe inserts or wedges

* Cushioned pads for shoes

* Nonslip soles of shoes for traction

* Velcro fasteners on clothing

* Large grips for tools and utensils (wrap foam or fabric around items with narrow handles, such as pens)

* Lightweight appliances--those made from aluminum or plastic rather than glass

* Wall-mounted jar openers

* Electric appliances, such as can openers and knives

* Mobile shower head

* Bath seats

* Grab bars for the bathtub

For more information on this topic, call the Arthritis Foundation Information Line at 800-283-7800.

This brochure provides a general overview on this topic and may not apply to everyone. To find out if this brochure applies to you and to get more information on this subject, talk to your family doctor.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Academy of Family Physicians
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Pamphlet by: American Academy of Family Physicians
Article Type:Pamphlet
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:1122
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