Many people assume arthritis is just an “old person’s disease”, and an inevitable part of getting older. Try telling that to the parents of toddlers impacted by the condition, or the twenty-somethings living with it.
The suggestion that it only troubles the elderly is one of many myths associated with arthritis, which affects around 10 million people in the UK.
“One in six people live with the pain, fatigue, and disability arthritis can cause. The impact can be huge, affecting the ability to work, care for family, move free from pain and live independently,” says Deborah Alsina, chief executive at the arthritis support charity Versus Arthritis, speaking to mark Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week (September 11–17).
“There are many misconceptions when it comes to understanding arthritis, but by shining a light on the reality of living with arthritis day in, day out, we can help grow understanding and inspire people to take action.”
Dr Amara Ezeonyeji, consultant rheumatologist from The Lister Hospital in London (part of HCA Healthcare UK), adds: “Arthritis is a general term that refers to a group of over 100 different types of inflammatory joint diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system. The most common symptom of arthritis is joint pain, but it can also cause stiffness, swelling, and decreased joint mobility.”
She says the most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA), often associated with wear and tear of the joints. Other common types are rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that primarily affects the joints; psoriatic arthritis, a type of arthritis associated with the skin condition psoriasis; ankylosing spondylitis, which primarily affects the spine and can lead to fusion of the vertebrae; and gout, which is caused by the accumulation of uric acid crystals in the joints and often affects the big toe.
“There are several myths about arthritis that are often repeated. It’s important to dispel these to promote an accurate understanding of arthritis, and to encourage those affected to seek appropriate medical care and support from a rheumatologist,” Ezeonyeji adds.
Here, Alsina and Ezeonyeji debunk nine common arthritis myths…
Myth 1: Arthritis only affects the elderly
While it is more common in older adults, arthritis can affect people of all ages, including children and young adults.
Myth 2: Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis
People who crack their knuckles will sometimes be wrongly warned that it’ll bring on arthritis, but Ezeonyeji explains: “There’s no scientific evidence linking knuckle cracking to the development of arthritis.
“When people crack their knuckles, they experience a release of pressure in the joints and relaxation in the surrounding muscles. It can make the joint feel more mobile and is unlikely to cause arthritis or other problems.”
Myth 3: It’s just wear and tear
Alsina says one of the most damaging myths is that any form of arthritis is just “wear and tear”.
“Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and will affect half of us by age 70. But it isn’t an inevitable part of ageing – your joints are not like car tyres destined to wear down and be replaced. They are made of complex living tissue that our bodies constantly repair and maintain, and osteoarthritis occurs when our bodies can no longer do this effectively,” she says.
“Our joints get stronger the more we use them, so keeping physically active and maintaining a healthy weight can help keep osteoarthritis under control.”
Myth 4: Cold damp weather causes arthritis
Although cold and damp weather can sometimes make arthritic joints feel worse, it’s definitely not why arthritis starts. Ezeonyeji explains: “Weather can influence joint discomfort, but it doesn’t cause arthritis. Arthritis is primarily a result of genetic and environmental factors.”
Myth 5: Exercise makes arthritis worse
People with arthritis can often find it hard to maintain regular physical activity, but a lack of movement can actually increase symptoms such as stiffness and pain, warns Alsina. “Building activity into your daily routine can help improve this, because using your joints builds muscle strength and improves the blood supply, all of which can ease symptoms and keep joints in better shape for longer.”
She says different activities will suit different people, but adds: “Swimming and cycling are great exercises to try, as they get the body moving without putting pressure on painful joints.”
It’s always a good idea to seek advice from a healthcare specialist if you are unsure what types of exercise will be suitable for you.
Myth 6: Arthritis is just joint pain – it’s not serious
Ezeonyeji says that while arthritis can be debilitating and lead to a reduced quality of life, it can get even more serious than that for some people. “Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, is an autoimmune disease that can affect various organs and tissues in addition to joints,” she points out.
Myth 7: There’s no treatment for arthritis
While there’s no cure for arthritis, Ezeonyeji says there are many effective treatments for managing the disease, including pain relief medication, physiotherapy, disease modifying agents and biological drugs for inflammatory arthritis, plus joint surgery in some cases.
“It’s also recommended that people with arthritis modify their lifestyle and try to lose weight [if they need to], follow a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly and stop smoking,” she adds.
Myth 8: Miracle cures can make arthritis disappear
Although some people with arthritis believe copper or magnetic bracelets ease symptoms, Alsina says studies show no evidence to support this. “It’s the same with lots of supplements, and some of these are really pricey,” she observes. “Interestingly though, placebos can be very effective and continue to work even if you know it’s a placebo, so if you find these helpful there’s no reason to stop.”
Myth 9: Certain foods definitely help/hinder arthritis
There are claims that foods like tomatoes can cause arthritis flares, and other foodstuff like cider vinegar may help it. Alsina says: “Sadly there’s no good evidence that there are specific foods you should avoid or have more of. But if you do find things that are helpful or make your symptoms worse, then listen to your body.”