Arthritis 101 – prevention and management

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is the name for a group of conditions that cause damage to the joints of the body, which usually results in pain and stiffness.

Arthritis can affect different parts of a joint and almost any joint in the body. The most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. It is also the leading cause of chronic pain in Australia.

What are the symptoms?

Arthritis-related problems include pain, stiffness, inflammation and damage to joint cartilage (the tissue that covers the ends of bones, allowing them to move smoothly against each other). This can result in joint weakness, instability and deformities that can interfere with everyday life. For example, pain and stiffness in your hip joints or lower back after sitting for too long; or feeling like you’ve “done too much” when your finger or wrist joints ache after using tools.

Who gets arthritis?

Arthritis can affect people from all backgrounds, ages and lifestyles. In Australia, one in six people have arthritis. Arthritis is not just a condition of our older population either – juvenile arthritis affects one in every thousand Australian children.

How can I prevent arthritis?

The cause of arthritis is unknown, but genetics and environmental factors can play a part. Some forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, might be the result of the body’s immune system losing its ability to tell the difference between good and bad cells. This means the body attacks healthy cells, such as those found in joints.

Other types, like osteoarthritis, can be prevented or delayed with some healthy lifestyle choices. For example, up to 70 per cent of osteoarthritis can be prevented by reducing body weight and preventing joint injuries, such as those sustained at work or during sport. Key strategies include maintaining a healthy weight, being active, preventing injury or properly managing an injury, giving up smoking and limiting your alcohol intake. Your GP can advise you on other ways to modify these risk factors. 

I have arthritis, what can I do?

There is no cure for arthritis, but there are many things you can do to manage it and lessen the impact on everyday life. 

1. Talk to your doctor

Your doctor is the best source of information about managing arthritis. They should be your first point of contact for any questions you have about your arthritis or other health issues. Your doctor can help you coordinate your overall health care, including making referrals to specialists and other health professionals if needed. They can also recommend medication or other treatment options.

2. Physical activity

Everyone with or without arthritis should be doing regular physical activity for health. Research has found that regular physical activity is one of the most effective treatments for arthritis – it helps to reduce pain and maintain general health. The important thing is to choose activities that best suit your condition, health and lifestyle.

Low-impact activities are a great way to start and include:

If you think you might need some help, your GP is a great place to start. An exercise physiologist or physiotherapist is also trained to prescribe exercise specific to your needs.

3. Nutrition

The best diet for arthritis is a healthy, balanced diet to maintain general health and prevent other medical problems. Follow the healthy eating guidelines by eating fresh fruit and vegetables and minimising processed food.

If you think you might need some help with nutrition, then talking to a dietitian to get a personal nutrition plan is a great starting point.

4. Weight loss

Being overweight can lead to more pain and damage to hips and knees affected by arthritis. For example, even an eight per cent reduction in body weight can reduce symptoms of knee osteoarthritis.

If you think you might need some help with weight loss, talk to your GP. You can also speak with a dietitian to help you to improve your nutrition and an exercise physiologist to help you safely start to move a little bit more.

5. Educate yourself

For more information, Arthritis Australia offers the latest research, fact sheets and support. You can also screen yourself for osteoarthritis online and get advice on how to manage your arthritis.