Thanks to cartoons and Carol Burnett skits, most of us can picture an elderly couple in rockers — the husband with his swollen knee predicting a cold front and the wife with stiffening hands adding that it’ll be ushered in by a hailstorm.
Although arthritis does bestow a mixed-blessing knack for meteorology, the likelier reason this image persists is that arthritis is the most common, disabling and expensive chronic illness in the United States.
It affects 46 million Americans of all ages and takes more than a hundred forms, including osteoarthritis (the most common) ankylosing spondylitis (osteoarthritis of the spine), gout, lupus and juvenile arthritis.
Arthritis is the degeneration of joint cartilage and changes in underlying bone and supporting tissues. Symptoms include pain, inflammation, stiffness, swelling and limited mobility.
As for your personal odds of getting arthritis, the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”) might be in order. There are some risk factors you can control and some you can’t.
Susan Ristine of the Texas Department of State Health Services said family history plays a part. Women generally face higher risk than men. Half of the elderly population is affected by arthritis, and risk increases with age. While you may not be able to control these factors, you can choose to take care of yourself.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘I’m old and I’ve got arthritis,’ and they assume it’s just part of aging. ‘There’s nothing I can do about it.’ That’s just not true,” Ristine said. “Go to your doctor. There are things you can do.”
Ristine added that early detection, diagnosis and treatment are key to managing arthritis, just like any chronic illness.
There are five basic risk factors for developing or worsening arthritis that you can control: obesity, physical inactivity, injuries, infections and occupations.
Get at and stay at your ideal weight. “Every additional pound gained places an additional 3 pounds on the knees,” Ristine said. “It increases the burden and wear and tear on your body.” Eating right and keeping a healthy body weight is your first step to a better life.
Don’t dodge exercise. “It sounds counterintuitive, but what you want to do is get moving,” Ristine said. Consult your doctor first, but moderate activity for at least 30 total minutes a day, three days a week is recommended for people with arthritis. If you have arthritis, you shouldn’t try to run a marathon, but you can walk, ride your bike and swim. Weight lifting and other resistance training increase joint function and range of motion and delay disability.
Be careful on the field. Play sports? Don’t let fear of arthritis hold you back. But do heed the example of NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, who’s hampered by an arthritic toe after 17 years of running, jumping and dunking. Repeated joint trauma won’t trigger arthritis immediately, but it’s still smart to wear protective gear.
And, if you’ve been injured, give yourself time to heal and avoid re-injury.
Guard against infection, both indoors and out. In hunting season, wear insect repellent and clothing that covers your legs and arms. Deer ticks carry Lyme disease, which is associated with arthritis. Certain gastrointestinal infections also are linked with arthritis, so contact your doctor if you think you have one.
Learn the best practices for your job. Office workers can be prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of arthritis often triggered by repetitive motions and steady pressure on the wrist. Their best strategies are to pay close attention to posture and vary physical work routines. Jobs that involve a lot of stooping, crawling or carrying heavy loads require extra precautions. Wear a back brace and knee pads. Lift with your legs, not your back. If you notice any pain, stiffness or swelling, see your doctor right away. You’ll be able to set up a routine either to thwart or slow the development of arthritis.
For more information, go to www.dshs.state.tx.us and use the search term, Arthritis.