How arthritis affects the body

Arthritis is an extremely common condition – there are around 10 million people suffering from it in the UK alone –  but few people understand how it affects the body or appreciate the impact it has on everyday life.

Today is World Arthritis Day, designed to promote greater awareness of this chronic illness. In this article, leading pain consultant Dr Chris Jenner provides insight into what it means to be diagnosed with arthritis and dispels common myths associated with the condition.

arthritis myths

The word ‘arthritis’ literally means inflammation of the joints, but rather than referring to a single disease, the term actually covers more than 100 medical conditions which, in different ways and for different reasons, cause pain, stiffness and loss of movement.

What all of these conditions have in common, however, is that they affect the musculoskeletal system, and the joints of the body specifically. Another mutual and unfortunate similarity is that none of these conditions are currently curable and most have the propensity to cause immense suffering and impairment to the quality of lives of those who experience their effects.

Arthritis is commonly thought of as a condition which affects only older members of society, and indeed some forms of the condition are not only more prevalent in those over the age of 55, but are responsible for more cases of disability in this age group in developed countries than any other single disease or illness. Other forms of arthritis, however, can develop during the various stages of life and some as early as infancy. As the disease takes hold, the weakness, swelling and instability of the joints which are fairly typical of many forms of the condition can make carrying out even the most basic activities difficult or even impossible, and in some cases can even produce visible deformities which only add to the sufferer’s distress.

There are almost 200 separate joints in the human body and arthritis can potentially affect any of these. In many cases, those who suffer from an arthritis-related condition find that more than one joint is affected, with knees, wrists, elbows, hands and hips being some of the most commonly affected areas. The joints of the spine too can fall prey to arthritis and in many cases the disease can become progressively worse and spread from one area of the body to another. Both the severity of the condition and the particular joints affected will do much to determine the extent of pain symptoms, as well as the potential for mobility to become restricted.

Although arthritis is principally a disease which affects muscle and bone, some forms of the condition have much more widespread effects and can, in fact, impact on the entire body. These systemic forms can, for example, cause damage to the body’s primary organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and even the skin, as well as impairing other bodily systems and functions.

Osteoarthritis, which is the most common type of arthritis, however, is restricted to the joints, while the much more serious but widespread rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints, tendons and tissues of the body.

Although arthritis is principally a disease which affects muscle and bone, some forms of the condition have much more widespread effects and can, in fact, impact on the entire body. These systemic forms can, for example, cause damage to the body’s primary organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and even the skin, as well as impairing other bodily systems and functions.

Osteoarthritis, which is the most common type of arthritis, however, is restricted to the joints, while the much more serious but widespread rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints, tendons and tissues of the body.

Different forms of arthritis attack the body in different ways. Certain types of the condition, for example, are caused by wear and tear and so typically affect those in the older age groups, whereas others are autoimmune diseases, are caused by infections or viruses, or develop as the result of an excess or depletion of certain substances in the body. Accidents and injuries can also be responsible for certain types of the disease, although it can sometimes be many years before the arthritis becomes apparent.

The different types of arthritis are not equally well understood, and in most cases medical science has yet to discover a definitive cause. There do, however, appear to be certain factors which make certain individuals more susceptible to one form or another of the condition. Suffice to say, however, that alongside age and gender, hereditary factors, previous injuries to the joints and obesity all appear to play a part in the onset of the disease in some cases, and that certain other illnesses seem to act as a precursor to certain types of arthritis.

Like many other chronic illnesses and diseases, arthritis is one whose effects are not just felt at a physical level. Pain is an emotional as well as a sensory experience and living with chronic pain, not to mention the sometimes severe restrictions to mobility which many chronic pain conditions also inflict, can have a significant impact on emotional and psychological well-being too. Although there are clear links between these effects, even today some of those in the medical profession fail to take account of them fully and, in treating only physical symptoms, effectively contribute to the patient’s suffering as the effects of emotional and psychological distress begin to aggravate physical symptoms and set up a vicious cycle.

Much of the misery which is typically associated with arthritis is, in fact, avoidable, and it is my aim to demonstrate why this is the case and just how sufferers can turn their lives around and experience a much improved quality of life.

This extract is taken from Arthritis: A practical guide to getting on with your life by Dr Chris Jenner.

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