Rheumatism: our top tips

‘Rheumatism’ is an old term, no longer used by doctors but still understood by most people. It refers to several condition that causes chronic joint pain, such as regional pain syndrome and connective tissue disorders, but is normally used in connection with arthritis.

painful hand

Arthritis is not a single condition; the word refers to a whole variety of illnesses with different causes and symptoms, all of which affect the joints. Most forms, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, cause inflammation. Taken together, arthritis is the largest cause of disability in people over the age of 55.

Symptoms experienced at the joints may include:

  • pain and tenderness
  • inflammation
  • swelling
  • reddening
  • grating sensation
  • stiffness
  • reduced range of motion
  • deformity
  • loss of function
  • growth of bone spurs

Arthritis usually affects multiple joints. You may also feel fatigued or have a fever.

If you experience these symptoms you should consult your GP. Your doctor is likely to refer you to a specialist called a rheumatologist to confirm any diagnosis and to discuss treatment.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritic conditions at this point in time. However, it is possible to manage arthritis through lifestyle changes, medications and nutritional supplements. The best course of action might depend on your symptoms and the specific form of arthritis.

Lifestyle changes

A whole range of lifestyle factors can affect a person’s experience of arthritis. A few changes can help people to manage the condition:

  • Physical therapies such as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and occupational therapy can help to reduce symptoms or improve your ability to perform everyday tasks.
  • Losing weight can reduce pressure on painful joints (if you are overweight). Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise can help.
  • Exercise will also help to strengthen the muscles around your joints. If arthritis is interfering with your ability to exercise, you could try experimenting with low-impact forms like swimming. It is especially important to get plenty of exercise because arthritis is linked to heart disease.
  • Supplements can help you to get the important nutrients you body needs to tackle inflammation.
  • Stress is known to affect our perception of pain, so finding a way to manage it can help you to overcome the symptoms of arthritis.
  • If arthritis is affecting your ability to complete everyday tasks, you can find products like reachers and hand rails to make things easier.

Diet and arthritis

Arthritis is a complex condition with a range of causes and symptoms. Various joint health supplements may be able to help you manage the illness, so you might consider a supplement or topical cream containing one of these ingredients:

  • Boswellia (Indian Frankincense) is an effective anti-inflammatory that may help to preserve cartilage.
  • Turmeric is another natural, highly effective anti-inflammatory which helps to support and maintain healthy and flexible joints.
  • Omega-3, found in fish oils, has been shown to affect inflammation.
  • Capasaicin, taken from chilli peppers, is an analgesic often used as an arthritis treatment.
  • Glucosamine is commonly sold as a supplement for people with osteoarthritis.
  • Vitamin C may help to manage inflammation.
  • Vitamin D deficiency is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It may also help with inflammation, although more evidence is needed.
  • It has been suggested that Devil’s Claw can help with pain and inflammation. Again, more evidence is needed.

Medical intervention

If you are diagnosed with arthritis, you may be advised to use over-the-counter or prescription medication to either relieve the symptoms of the illness or suppress inflammation.

Various kinds of medication are available:

  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)slow the progression of arthritis by treating the disease itself, rather than the symptoms. It can take several weeks for them to have an effect.
  • Biologic DMARDSreduce inflammation by interrupting immune system signals related to the inflammation caused by arthritis. This is a new treatment that generally causes fewer side effects, but where they do occur the side effects can be severe.
  • Pain and inflammation can be eased using over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofenor aspirin, but if you are experiencing severe pain you might be offered a stronger, prescription medication. It is recommended that you take painkillers before participating in activities that cause the symptoms to flare up, such as exercise.
  • Steroids– administered as an injection or a tablet – act as anti-inflammatories. They can be very effective, but are normally used for short periods because of potential side effects such as osteoporosis.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)are effective anti-inflammatory drugs. They can be used for short periods when symptoms are particularly bad, but can cause digestive problems and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Different forms of arthritis are sometimes treated in other ways. People with particularly severe arthritis are sometimes offered an operation to reconstruct or replace a damaged joint, or to reduce pain.