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How to manage arthritis

Lifestyle — Posted 17/03/14

Tired of aching, swollen joints? These self-management strategies may help reduce the pain and discomfort of arthritis.

If you’re one of the 3.85 million Australians affected by arthritis, chances are you’re no stranger to living with pain, stiffness and inflammation. Arthritis – an umbrella term for more than 100 conditions related to the musculoskeletal system, specifically the joints – can cause varying degrees of pain and discomfort, sometimes impacting the way you live your everyday life.

There is currently no cure for arthritis, but treatment is available. To develop your treatment plan, you may work with any number of health professionals including doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and rheumatologists.

Depending on your type of arthritis and the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medication aimed to reduce pain and inflammation or to slow down the damage to joints. Commonly prescribed medications include pain-relieving medications (analgesics), creams and ointments, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.

Self-management strategies for arthritis

Along with treatment prescribed by your doctor and healthcare team, here are some self-management strategies that many people with arthritis have found to help relieve pain and discomfort.

Healthy diet. While there are many myths and fads about diets that will cure arthritis, the best thing you can do to promote good health is to adopt balanced, nutritious eating habits. A healthy diet made up of plenty of fruits and vegetables and a good variety of nutrients can help you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of other health problems. Increasing your intake of calcium and vitamin D may also help in the prevention of arthritis and osteoporosis. Find out more about what makes a balanced diet here.

Exercise. Regular physical activity can help to reduce joint pain and stiffness, alleviate muscle tension and stress, build strong muscle around the joints, and increase your flexibility, mobility and endurance. Light strength training can help to maintain bone mass, which can help prevent future problems. Walking, swimming, hydrotherapy, yoga, pilates and tai chi can all be beneficial depending on your level of fitness and the severity of your symptoms. Talk to your doctor or other health professional before starting an exercise program. 

Healthy weight. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can help to lower the stress on your joints, reducing pain and increasing your mobility. Extra body weight increases the stress on many joints, particularly the knees, hips and lower back, and people who are overweight or obsese are at a greater risk of developing arthritis and osteoporosis.

Omega-3s. Although you should be wary of foods and supplements that claim to cure arthritis, one that has been shown to reduce inflammation is food rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Arthritis Australia suggests trying to eat oily fish such as sardines and salmon at least two to three times a week. Other foods rich in omega-3 fats include walnuts, canola oil and ground linseeds and flaxseed oil. 

Reduce alcohol and tobacco intake. Consuming too much alcohol has a negative impact on bone mass and contributes to weight gain, which in turn places extra pressure on the joints. As excessive alcohol intake is a contributing factor to many chronic diseases, reducing the amount you drink each week is an important part of promoting overall good health. Studies also suggest that smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, as well as low bone mass and low bone strength. 

Massage. Some people find massage to be an effective way to alleviate muscle tension and stiffness caused by arthritis. Remedial or therapeutic massage therapies can help to improve circulation, reduce swelling and increase the body’s production of endorphins, a natural pain-killer. Relaxation can also be helpful for improving sleep and immune function, reducing the effects of the fatigue that often accompanies arthritis.

Water exercise. Hydrotherapy, or exercising in a warm water pool, can be a great way for people with arthritis to exercise. The buoyancy of the water supports the joints, enabling you to gently exercise the muscles and build strength, ease stiff joints and relax. For people who experience arthritis in their feet, knees, back and hips, exercising in water may give them more mobility and flexibility than on land. Many pools will offer group water exercise classes, or you may find it useful to have a one-on-one session in a hydrotherapy pool with a physiotherapist.

Heat and cold. You may find it soothing to take a warm bath or place a heat pack over the painful area for 15 minutes. The heat relaxes your muscles and stimulates blood circulation. Similarly, cold packs can be used to numb the troublesome area and reduce swelling. If your joints are feeling hot and swollen, applying an ice pack for 15 minutes may provide relief. Ask your doctor or physiotherapist whether heat or cold is best for you.

For more information, visit Arthritis Australia arthritisaustralia.com.au

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