Debunking the Myths of Arthritis

Patient Expert

Myth: Arthritis is an old person's disease.

Fact: Two thirds of people who have arthritis are under the age of 65. Some of the most serious forms of arthritis affect teenagers or people in their 20s or 30s.

Myth: Arthritis is one disease.

Fact: There are over 100 different types of arthritis.

Myth: There's nothing you can do about arthritis, you just have to live with it.

Fact: Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent long-term pain and disability

May is Arthritis Awareness Month. This year, the focus of The Arthritis Foundation is to dispel the myths of arthritis and help the public understand the truth about these diseases. I recently spoke to Dr. Patience White, VP of Public Health at The Arthritis Foundation.

Osteoarthritis: A Public Health Crisis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting over 26 million people in the US, with millions more to come as the population ages. This has a high economic and personal impact and it can be prevented.

Dr. White explains that "osteoarthritis has a large behavioral component." Three behavioral factors can contribute to preventing osteoarthritis or reducing its impact.

First, injuries to joints, particularly the large joints below the waist — hips and knees — often lead to developing osteoarthritis approximately 10 years after the injury. This means that if you injure your knee playing sports at 18, you may have osteoarthritis before you're 30 years old. It is therefore important for people who play sports to do so as safely as possible.

The second factor is weight. Dr. White said. "People who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25-30 have a 50% risk of developing osteoarthritis. If you have a BMI of more than 30, the risk increases to 66%." She went on to share a remarkable fact: "every one pound you lose takes 4 pounds of strain off your knees. A 5-10 pound weight loss can cut your knee pain in half."

Physical activity is the third important factor in reducing the impact of osteoarthritis. "Strengthening the muscles around your joints is particularly good for the lower extremities," Dr. White said. If you have osteoarthritis and it affects your ability to move, The Arthritis Foundation has a number of programs, such as Walk with Ease that can help you be physically active.

Dr. White stressed that that both osteoarthritis and the impact of osteoarthritis are preventable. "If you lose weight, do physical activity and don't get injured, you can stop the progression of osteoarthritis that may already have started."

Inflammatory Arthritis: Prevention

There are a number of types of autoimmune arthritis, such as psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In these diseases, the immune system malfunctions and attacks the tissues in the body. For instance, in rheumatoid arthritis this is expressed through inflammation in joints and other systems in the body, including internal organs. Autoimmune or inflammatory types of arthritis are chronic illnesses for which there is no cure. Early and aggressive treatment is key to preventing damage to joints, deformity, and disability.

Dr. White emphasizes that the message of prevention also applies to inflammatory arthritis, such as RA. In such cases, "prevention is getting to a doctor and getting treated." The earlier treatment starts, the more likely it is to achieve remission. Early treatment will help prevent damage, which is not just important in itself, but also because damage in the joint is essentially an injury. This can put the person with RA at risk for developing osteoarthritis, as well, leading, as Dr. White says, "back to square one."

Managing your weight is also very important for people who have RA. Dr. White explains that "when you're overweight, you don't respond as well to the biologic drugs." Likewise, strengthening the muscles that support the joints through physical therapy will help people with RA function better.

Making a Difference

There are a number of ways to get involved this month to create awareness about the different types of arthritis. The Arthritis Walk is a nationwide initiative that raises money to fight arthritis and for programs to support those who live with arthritis. You can visit the Arthritis Foundation website to sign up for the Walk or find an event in your area.

You can also join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #ArthritisMonth throughout the month of May. If you have a type of arthritis, you'll help raise awareness of the realities of living with these conditions. If you don't have arthritis, you learn more from people all over the US.

The Arthritis Foundation also encourages everyone who lives with any type of arthritis to submit their photo to the Faces of Arthritis photo gallery along with a 140 character message. Show the world that arthritis can affect anyone_Lene is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain._