Arthritis is a common health condition, affecting more than 670,000 New Zealanders, according to Arthritis NZ. The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, affecting around 10% of New Zealand adults. After diagnosis, medication and lifestyle changes may be used to manage symptoms and decrease pain.
Forms of arthritis
There are more than 140 forms of arthritis, but the three most common include osteoarthritis, gout, and rheumatoid arthritis.
This form of arthritis is most common in people over the age of 50, although can occur at any age. It is slightly more common in women. Osteoarthritis affects the cartilage, joint linings, ligaments, and muscles of a joint. This form of arthritis leads to the breakdown in cartilage, which acts as a shock absorber in the joint, and can lead to bones near the joint losing shape and developing bony spurs. It most commonly develops in hands and weight-bearing joints such as the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and spine, but can occur in any joints.
Some factors that increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis include ageing, carrying excess weight, a family history of osteoarthritis, and previous joint injury. Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition, but can be managed successfully. You can find more information on osteoarthritis here.
The main cause of gout arthritis is genetic factors. It particularly affects Māori and Pasifika people for this reason.
Gout arthritis occurs when you have too much uric acid in your blood. It usually affects your big toe or another part of your foot first, but if untreated can spread to other joints such as your knees, elbows, wrists, and fingers. It can also cause damage to joints and kidneys.
An acute gout attack will start suddenly and may develop overnight. It can last 7-10 days and should be treated by a doctor immediately. The joint will become painful and swollen, and the skin over the joint can become red and shiny.
You are more at risk of developing gout arthritis if you have a family history of gout, are overweight, are of an older age, if your diet is high in sugar or purine foods (e.g. alcohol, anchovies, mussels, bacon etc.) or if you take some medications. For more information on gout, check Arthritis NZ.
This kind of arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Inflammation and pain in the joints is caused by the immune system attacking healthy tissue instead of infection. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but typically develops between the ages of 25 and 50, and is more common in women. Rheumatoid arthritis usually starts developing in small joints in the hands and feet, but can develop anywhere. If left untreated, the ongoing inflammation can progressively damage your joints and cause deformities.
You are more at risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis if you are a woman, have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, have a change in your hormones such as from pregnancy or contraceptives, are a smoker, or have previous infections that trigger the onset. To learn more about rheumatoid arthritis, click here.
You may notice symptoms in your joints, including:
- Swelling and tenderness
- Difficulty moving the joint
- Muscle aches and pains
- Fatigue and feeling generally unwell
If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
If you are diagnosed with arthritis, you may be recommended a variety of treatments. These can include various pain medications, exercise plans, and pain management tips.
Your doctor will talk with you about what the best pain medications are for you. Pain medication is best used alongside other pain management techniques and frequent exercise. It is important to work with your doctor to form the best treatment plan for you.
Remaining active can help strengthen the muscles around your joints, ease joint stiffness, improve your balance, give you more energy during the day, and help you sleep better at night. Frequent gentle exercise is recommended for people with arthritis to keep your joints moving. Stretching exercise such as yoga and tai chi can improve your range of motion, relieve stiffness, and improve joint movement. Strength-building exercise aims to build muscle around joints to help improve control and movement. Aerobic exercise will improve your cardiovascular health and overall fitness.
If you are regularly exercising, it is important to know your limits and stop when you reach it. If you feel pain while exercising, take a break or focus on a different exercise. Keep exercises low impact to reduce the stress on your joints as you move.
More information on exercising with arthritis can be found on the Mayo Clinic website.
Pain management tips
In conjunction with medication and exercise, some pain management tips can help to keep you living well with arthritis.
Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet will relieve stress from your joints. Practicing good posture will also help to protect your joints. Good posture and frequent breaks to move your body will also improve your energy.
If you are struggling with pain, apply heat or a cold flannel to the joint to offer some relief. If you need to move while experiencing joint pain, consider using walking sticks to relieve pressure on the joint and wear supportive footwear.
Pain management may also include mind-based approaches, including mindfulness, breathing exercises, and distraction techniques. Some complimentary therapies that may bring relief include acupuncture, massage, and yoga.
Be aware of what you can manage and what is too much for your body. If you are managing pain while doing other activities, pace yourself by doing ‘little and often’ and being aware of your limits. If you have a busy day or week, plan what you need to do in advance and schedule rests. You may also benefit from prioritising what you need to do.
For more information on living well with arthritis, visit Arthritis NZ.
Websites of interest
Age Concern New Zealand would like to acknowledge Arthritis New Zealand and Jemma Sergent (Master's student, Victoria University) for their input and advice on this webpage.