Millions of arthritis victims are suffering unnecessarily because of ignorance about effective treatment, a medical research charity claimed yesterday.
Early treatment can prevent destruction of joints but too many sufferers, particularly older people, still believe nothing can be done to help and do not ask their doctor to refer them to a rheumatologist, says the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council.
The charity, celebrating its diamond jubilee, launched a campaign yesterday to raise awareness among sufferers and doctors of progress in treating this debilitating disease. At present more than 11 million people in the UK suffer from arthritis but it is only in the past 10 years that new drugs and surgery have been able to offer relief from the worst symptoms.
Many arthritic diseases can be treated and controlled so that they are no longer a problem with treatment concentrating on the relief of pain, maintenance of maximum joint function and the treatment of the disease process. Recent research has also shown that steps can be taken to reduce the onset of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis with regular exercise.
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in its early stages has been particularly successful. Within the past year, two drugs - corticosteroids and cyclosporin A - have been used to relieve symptoms.
Research also suggests that not only do patients have a right to know more about their arthritis but that knowledge itself can help in the treatment. Dr John Kirwan, consultant rheumatologist and chairman of the ARC's education committee, said patients who take control of their disease and work in partnership with their GP do much better than those who are dependent.
"Helping yourself can be as important as the new drugs. That is why we need more education as part of the treatment for arthritis sufferers," he said.
Over the years the ARC has campaigned for the NHS to create the specialty of rheumatology, and has funded 14 chairs of rheumatology at different universities including Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds.
Dr Kirwan added: "Treatment should be sought as early as possible. There is growing evidence that the earlier therapy is given the better the chance of preventing the joint destruction which is characteristic of most types of arthritis. It is a tragedy when people do not receive treatment when there is now so much more that can be done."
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