Arthritis is common as you get older. Our concise guide discusses the symptoms of arthritis and advises how to ease and treat them.

What is arthritis?

If you suffer from joint pain, join the club. So many people have osteoarthritis, you'll soon be offered advice not only by your doctor, family and friends but also by the plumber and your next-door neighbour. Anti-inflammatory drugs–prescription and over-the-counter–can ease the pain, and most people will want to take them, but relief from arthritis doesn't end at that point. There are plenty of other measures sufferers can take to achieve their goal of easy-moving, pain-free days.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, but the most common type is osteoarthritis. Since you can't be sure what kind of arthritis you have, or whether your symptoms suggest another condition entirely, it's essential to discuss any joint stiffness, swelling, redness or pain with your doctor. If you've already been diagnosed with arthritis, see your doctor if you notice a new or different type of swelling in your joints.

 

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Symptoms include painfully stiff, swollen joints in any part of the body. The pain is the result of wear and tear on cartilage, the gel-like shock-absorbing material between joints. When cartilage wears away, bone grinds against bone. Although you can develop osteoarthritis at any age, it usually occurs in people over 45 years of age, and is more common among women. Other forms of the disease are rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.

 

Natural arthritis treatmnts:

  • Eucalyptus oil can be effective. Put a few drops on the skin and rub it in, but don't use the oil under a heating pad or hot compress, as the additional heat can cause eucalyptus oil to burn or irritate the skin.
     
  • Capsaicin is a substance that gives chillies their ‘heat’. It is also the active ingredient in some products designed for on-going joint pain. Capsaicin is a counter-irritant: it irritates nerve endings, diverting the brain's attention from arthritis pain. Capsaicin cream 0.025 per cent is available over the counter.
     
  • Take half a teaspoon of powdered ginger or up to 35g (about 6 teaspoons) of fresh ginger once a day. Research shows that ginger root helps to relieve arthritis pain, probably because of its ability to increase blood circulation, and thereby help remove inflammatory chemicals away from painful joints.
     
  • Herbs show promise in the treatment of arthritis. Willow is rich in anti-inflammatory salicylates, while research underlines the benefits of devil's claw in easing back and knee pain, in a similar way to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
     
  • Turmeric is said to help reduce the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It has significant anti-oxidant activity and has been traditionally used in Ayurveda (Indian medicine) to treat arthritis. Include it frequently in cooking or take a supplement containing a standardised extract of curcumins (the active ingredient in turmeric).

 

Oils to relieve arthritis

Eat more oily fish. Many people who supplement their diets with omega-3 fatty acids–found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout–discover that pain and stiffness are lessened. These substances seem to discourage inflammation in the body. You can also take the oils alone or in capsule form. Research at Cardiff University has shown that the omega-3 fatty acids in cod liver oil can slow and may even reverse the destruction of cartilage that leads to osteoarthritis. The recommended dose is 2000mg of an omega-3 supplement 3 times a day, with meals. But check with your doctor first before taking fish oil supplements if you are taking blood-thinning drugs, have high cholesterol or are diabetic. As an alternative to fish oil capsules, take 1 tablespoon of flaxseed (linseed) oil a day. It's loaded with the same type of omega-3s. Take the oil straight from a spoon, mix it with orange juice or add it to your salad dressing. If you like nuts, indulge. They also contain beneficial oils.

 

Supplements

  • Take glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate supplements to reduce pain and slow down cartilage loss. Evidence suggests that they can be effective for people with mild to moderate arthritis. Follow the label directions and persevere: it may take a month or more before you begin to feel the benefits.
     
  • Take SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine). Supplementing with SAM-e, a chemical found naturally in all cells of the body, has been shown to help relieve arthritis pain by increasing blood levels of proteoglycans– molecules that seem to play a key role in preserving cartilage by helping to keep it ‘plumped up’ and well oxygenated. SAM-e also appears to reduce inflammation. SAM-e has few side effects, although it can cause dyspepsia and nausea. It seems to be safe to take with most prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but if you are taking medication for bipolar disorder (manic depression) or Parkinson's disease, you should consult your doctor before taking SAM-e supplements.
     
  • Niacinamide (vitamin B3) is a supplement that may help to improve joint flexibility and reduce inflammation. A study of people with osteoarthritis found that they were able to reduce their dose of conventional anti-inflammatory medication when they also took niacinamide. (Caution: Always consult your doctor before altering your prescribed dose of any medication.)

 

Heat remedies

  • Applying heat to a painful joint can provide significant relief. Electric blankets and hand warmers, heating pads or hot packs all work well. Warm the achy joint for 20 minutes.
     
  • A hot bath with eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils helps ease painful, stiff joints. Add 5 drops of each to hot water and soak in the tub for around 15 minutes.
     
  • Cold treatments can work well when joints are inflamed. Wrap ice cubes in a towel or face washer and hold against the sore joint. Alternatively, you can use a bag of frozen peas.

 

Exercises

Whether it's walking, swimming, cycling or yoga, begin a gentle exercise regime. The better your physical condition, the less pain and stiffness you'll have. If you have arthritis in a leg joint, you might need a walking stick to help stabilise the joints. If your joints are swollen and inflamed, don't work through the pain. Instead, take a day off. Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about how to start a weight-training program. Strong muscles will help to support your joints and absorb shock.

For knee pains, consider this massage knee protector and support for additional benefits when you exercise.

Yoga can help relieve arthritis

 

Alternative treatments

  • If you frequently have stiff, swollen hands in the morning, try wearing a snug-fitting pair of gloves to bed. They may help to keep the swelling in check. But stop if you find that wearing gloves to bed only makes morning stiffness worse.
     
  • People with arthritis have long worn copper bracelets to ‘draw out the pain’. Researchers in Australia have found that people who wear copper bracelets and also take aspirin experience less pain than people who treat their pain with aspirin alone.
     
  • Many people with arthritis find that their pain is triggered by changes in the weather. If you are one of them, it's not just your imagination: a sudden increase in humidity and rapid drop in air pressure affect blood flow to arthritic joints. When storms are forecast, try turning on a dehumidifier to dry the air.
     
  • If you have hip or knee arthritis, ask your doctor to measure the length of your legs. 1 in 5 people with arthritis in these joints has 1 leg that is slightly longer than the other. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a podiatrist to have corrective shoes made for you.

 

How to prevent arthritis 

Maintain a healthy weight to help prevent osteoarthritis. Losing just 5 kilos and keeping it off for 10 years will halve the risk of arthritis affecting your knees. Invest in good walking shoes. The softer heels will lessen the impact of walking on your foot, ankle, knee and hip joints. Flat, supportive shoes are generally considered best for knees.

Recent clinical studies have shown that vitamin C and other anti-oxidants can help to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis and its progression. Anti-oxidants prevent bone breakdown by destroying free radicals–harmful oxygen molecules that cause tissue damage. Take 500mg of vitamin C every day.

Take zinc supplements. One long-term study of nearly 30,000 women found that those who took zinc supplements reduced their risk of rheumatoid arthritis. The recommended dose is 15mg a day taken with food.
Acupuncture may reduce the requirements for conventional pain-killing drugs, which often have unpleasant side effects. A number of clinical trials have found that it is especially beneficial for people with arthritis in their knees and hips. A series of treatments is required rather than a single session. See a qualified acupuncturist for an individual assessment.

Mind–body therapies, such as meditation, self-hypnosis and visualisation, have all been shown to have great benefit in helping people with arthritis deal with the chronic pain.