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Have you got achy joints?

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

More than 10 million people in the UK have arthritis and experience painful joints. While there are many types, the two most common forms of the condition are are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This article looks at each condition in more detail and looks at what you can do to make yourself more comfortable.

Managing osteoarthritis

OA is the most common type of arthritis in the UK, with nearly 9 million Brits living with the condition. It typically affects people over the age of 45 and can affect any joint in the body, but is normally seen in the large weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees, and spine, as well as in the smaller joints of the fingers.

It may result from an inherited weakness in cartilage – the rubbery-type tissue that separates the bones – but lifestyle is important too, and there are steps you can take to protect your joints.

There is good evidence that the improved muscle tone associated with regular exercise helps protect the joints, but conversely, too much exercise can be detrimental. Regular walking or jogging shouldn’t cause arthritis of the knees or hips, although it may accelerate damage in people with pre-existing problems.

A healthy diet – particularly one rich in vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish – may help slow the progression of OA and ease joint pain and inflammation.

If you do live with OA, paracetamol taken regularly is recommended as the first port of call to handle any pain or discomfort. If that’s not effective, try an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like ibuprofen. Topical NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen gel, are often useful for hand or knee arthritis while corticosteroid injections into the joint are also sometimes used to fight inflammation.

Managing rheumatoid arthritis

RA is much less common, but still affects more than 400,000 people in the UK. It’s an autoimmune condition in which the antibodies that normally attack bacteria and viruses target the cells covering the joints, leaving them inflamed and sore. Women are three times more likely to be affected than men, and it will usually strike when a person is between 40 to 50 years old.

Similar to OA, regular over-the-counter painkillers can help RA sufferers cope with pain and discomfort – if you’re prescribed regular oral NSAIDs, you may need to take some extra medication to protect your stomach from irritation.

Early diagnosis is vital to start treatment and prevent the condition deteriorating, leading to permanent joint damage. Because its symptoms are similar to other conditions, it can be hard for your GP to provide an accurate diagnosis, so you will need a referral to a hospital specialist to have blood tests.

Dr. Alexandra Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.