Grandma has it so you think arthritis only affects the elderly, right?

From time to time I assist our helpline counselors with answering the many helpline telephone calls that the Foundation receives and never cease to wonder at the erroneous information that abounds in the form of misconceptions and myths. For instance, I was once asked by a radio talk show host whether frequent emersion of ones’ hands in cold water could cause arthritis…

We live in the computer age where information can be easily accessed at the click of a link. Sad to say, the information superhighway, accepted rather ingenuously by many as a source of irrefutable and undeniable fact, is also a portal for misinformation, especially when it comes to arthritis. A click here and there can direct you to bad websites that offer conflicting views and opinions about arthritis that can lead you astray rather than help your condition.

FROM ancient times, arthritis has been a mystery giving rise to a number of misconceptions and myths. Some are based on science and the others on beliefs. When it comes to science, how do we determine what is the truth and what is myth? The answer is to separate science from superstition and to ask the doctor. You and your physician should work hand in hand in treating this disease. Patient cooperation is essential to successful treatment and based on your kind of arthritis, your physician will give you what he or she thinks is the best course of treatment. However, since each person may react or respond differently to different treatments there is no such thing as an ideal treatment for an individual. The main concern in the treatment of arthritis is the relief of pain and improving joint mobility.

A major public perception is the belief that arthritis only affects the elderly but it is not so. Arthritis occurs in all age groups and can affect very young people as well. The arthritic diseases seen in children are rheumatic fever and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (more commonly known as JIA or Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis). It is quite commonly and mistakenly so, considered to be a single disease but arthritis is a term given to a collection of over 150 medical conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system and in particular the joints. The different forms of arthritis are capable of affecting not only the muscles and joints but the whole body, sometimes including organs like the kidneys, lungs, heart, etc.

Somehow or another - perhaps because of the perception that arthritis is solely the domain of the aged, arthritis is perceived by many to be a negligible condition. As far back as October 2002 the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in America released a statement confirming that arthritis and chronic joint symptoms are America’s most common public health problem. In fact, far from being a negligible disease, arthritis is the number one cause of loss of personal freedom. More than

100 000 Americans can’t walk independently from their bed to the bathroom because of this negligible condition. Ten million more Americans are limited in their daily activities because arthritis in its many forms is:

* The leading cause of physician visits in adults over 65

*The most common chronic disease

*The most common cause of crippling

*The most common cause of impairment and functional limitation in adults

*A leading cause of unemployment

Unfortunately, South Africa does not have its own epidemiological data but the American experience certainly begs the question “Can we be that much different?”

Two myths that need to be dispelled are “The arthritic patient should never do exercise” and “there are special diets for curing arthritis”. All patients with arthritis should definitely have a regular exercise programme! The advantages are that exercise maintains the range of joint movements, prevent joint deformities, maintain muscle strength and generally improve a sense of well being. Having said this…a patient should, however, strike a balance between rest and physical activity.

If there were indeed a special diet for curing arthritis, drug company research spend would certainly not be as high as it is! In fact they’d be into organic farming…can’t imagine a chemist tilling soil! Seriously, the best diet for an arthritic patient is a well balanced nutritious diet. Except for the rare patient with a specific food allergy that may aggravate his/her joint symptoms and of course acidic foods in the case of gout, there is no proven scientific connection between a particular food source and arthritis. The concept of an “arthritis diet” has not seen the light of day.

One last matter…many people that phone in have reached a point where they are asking themselves the question “Should I just accept my fate?”. The answer to that is an EMPHATIC NO! Nothing could be farther from the truth, particularly today. The therapies are simply amazing and the new biologic agents have profoundly altered the personality of the disease. If there are two things that I can leave you with, firstly – don’t ever let your disease cause you to give up on yourself and secondly, DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE OR HEAR unless qualified by a health professional specializing in rheumatology!

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