Arthritis? It’s normal to experience the odd knee twinge or a stiff back as we get older. But is it actually arthritis? Here’s everything you need to know
Written by Beth Gibbons on February 25, 2019
Reviewed by Sammy Margo on March 7, 2019
It’s hard to escape the effects of wear and tear as we get older – particularly when it comes to our joints. But are your creaking knees a natural part of ageing or something more serious, such as arthritis?
With more than 10 million people in the UK living with the condition,1 it’s not a giant leap to assume you could have arthritis. Read our guide and get the low-down on this painful condition.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a condition that causes pain and inflammation in your joints. Osteoarthritis – the medical term for age-related arthritis – occurs when the smooth cartilage that lines the joints becomes inflamed.2 The exact cause is not known, but it’s thought that injury, family history, being overweight or just getting older can trigger the inflammation.3
Over time, the cartilage thins out and becomes rougher, forcing the tendons and ligaments that control the joint to work harder to compensate. In severe cases, the cartilage is worn away altogether so bone rubs against bone, making everyday activities like walking almost impossible.4
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of joint inflammation. Other types include:5-7
- rheumatoid arthritis – a condition in which the body’s own immune system attacks the joints
- psoriatic arthritis – the inflammatory symptoms of psoriasis extend to the joints
- gout – an excess of uric acid in the blood forms crystals in the joints (typically the big toe) causing intense pain, redness and swelling
- fibromyalgia – a different condition that causes pain in the muscles, ligaments and joints, which can also worsen the pain of arthritis
What causes osteoarthritis?
In most cases, the answer is age. Wear and tear over the years causes the joints to become inflamed. Symptoms usually appear in your 40s and 50s, but can show up much earlier in people who have been injured or who have repetitive strain injury. The knees, hips and hands are most often affected, as they either support most of our weight or we use those joints a lot in everyday life.8
Your risk of developing OA is greater if you’re a woman,9 particularly after the menopause.10 This is because lower levels of oestrogen are associated with increased bone breakdown.11 However, 2017 research suggests that lower oestrogen levels also trigger inflammatory changes in the fluid surrounding the joints.12
There’s a genetic link to OA, too; if you have family members with the condition you’re more likely to be affected.13
How to help prevent arthritis
While there’s not a great deal you can do about your genes or gender, making a number of lifestyle changes could make a big difference to your joints.
Maintain a healthy BMI
Obesity increases the risk of developing all forms of arthritis, as being overweight puts added strain on your weight-bearing joints.14 Plus, excess fat is linked to inflammation in the body, which may speed up degenerative changes in the joints.15
But losing weight can help maintain healthy joints. According to a 2018 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, people with OA of the knee who lost 10% of their body weight over 18 months, experienced a 50% reduction in pain.16
Regular exercise is also good to help maintain joint stability and flexibility.17 In 2007 Australian researchers studying 297 men and women found those who regularly performed vigorous weight-bearing exercise had thicker, healthier knee cartilage.18 Low-impact activities like swimming or spinning can take pressure off your joints during exercise.
Eat joint-friendly foods
Good nutrition might also make a difference to your joints. The Mediterranean diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, oily fish and nuts and seeds, could be particularly helpful – it’s rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that may reduce levels of inflammation throughout the body.19
Avoiding processed foods such as refined carbohydrates – including white bread, cakes and biscuits – is also important, as these have been shown to trigger inflammatory changes in the body.20
Consider a supplement
- capsaicin – the compound that gives chilli its heat may work by reducing a pain transmitter in your nerves. A 2010 study reported that women with knee OA who applied a capsaicin gel every day for four weeks experienced an improvement in pain, stiffness and function.21
- devil’s claw – this herb has been used to ease joint pain for generations. A 2006 review of studies into OA and devil’s claw concluded that it ‘appeared effective in the reduction of the main clinical symptom of pain’ but that more studies were needed.22
- turmeric – the fashionable spice contains an active ingredient, curcumin, that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. According to one review of evidence, turmeric can ease pain and improve joint function in as little as four weeks.23
Anecdotally, many of those with arthritis say they have experienced relief after using ginger, bromelain, or omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oils.
Managing arthritis symptoms
There’s no cure for arthritis, but talk to your GP if you’re in pain. They can help find the right remedy for keeping you active and may refer you for physiotherapy, if needed. In extreme cases, joint replacement surgery may be recommended.24
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. Versus Arthritis. What is arthritis?
2. NHS. Arthritis – overview
3. NHS. Osteoarthritis – overview
4. Versus Arthritis. Osteoarthritis
5. As Source 2
6. NHS. Psoriatic arthritis
7. James McIntosh. Medical News Today. Everything you need to know about gout
8. As Source 4
9. As Source 2
10. Kolhe R, et al. Gender-specific differential expression of exosomal miRNA in synovial fluid of patients with osteoarthritis
11. Riggs BL. The mechanisms of estrogen regulation of bone resorption
12. As Source 9
13. Fernández-Moreno M, et al. Genetics in osteoarthritis
14. Andrea Knae. Arthritis Foundation. How Fat Affects Arthritis
15. As above
16. Science Daily. When it comes to weight loss in overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis, more is better
17. Harvard Health Publishing. Does exercise contribute to arthritis? Research says no
18. Racunica TL, et al. Effect of physical activity on articular knee joint structures in community-based adults
19. Amy Paturel. Arthritis Foundation. The Ultimate Arthritis Diet
20. Amanda Burrell. Medical News Today. What is the best diet for osteoarthritis?
21. Kosuwon W, et al. Efficacy of symptomatic control of knee osteoarthritis with 0.0125% of capsaicin versus placebo
22. Brien S, Lewith GT, McGregor G. Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) as a treatment for osteoarthritis: a review of efficacy and safety
23. Chin KY. The spice for joint inflammation: anti-inflammatory role of curcumin in treating osteoarthritis
24. NHS. Osteoarthritis – treatment