Wellbeing

Jan Vickery, Lead Physiotherapist at AXA Health

Osteoarthritis

Arthritis

11 May 2021

Jan Vickery

Written by Jan Vickery

A chartered physiotherapist and ergonomist, Jan is head of clinical operations for AXA Health’s specialist Health Services division

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Osteoarthritis is a common condition that causes pain and stiffness in the joints. Around 1 in 3 (8.75 million) people aged 45 years and over in the UK have sought treatment for osteoarthritis [1], and it’s likely that many more remain undiagnosed.

The good news when it comes to osteoarthritis is there's plenty we can do to ensure our quality of life isn't compromised.

The most effective approach focuses on self-management. “This means doing what you can to preserve function and mobility of joints, like regular exercise, controlling body weight and treating injuries as and when they occur,” explains our Lead Physiotherapist, Jan Vickery.

Osteoarthritis can occur in the fingers, knees, toes, hips, base of thumb and spine, but as it takes a long time to develop, there is plenty of time to be proactive. It involves the loss of cartilage, the protective surface over the end of the bone, so that joints become swollen and painful.

A controlled exercise programme can help to control symptoms. A physiotherapist may offer mobilisation and stretching, and pain relief. “We want people to be empowered, so they can go away and be able to cope if they have a flare up. For instance, icing the joint if it flares up helps to bring down swelling.”

Osteoarthritis can cause a vicious circle, particularly among older people. So, how can we help ourselves?

Self-help tips to help manage your symptoms

Rule one: lose weight for knee arthritis

“If you’re over-weight, losing weight is helpful if you have arthritis in your knees,” says Jan. 

“Exercise, weight loss and wearing the right shoes can keep someone off drugs and injections and prevent surgery. Ossur bracing might be helpful for specific types of arthritis in the knee.”

Rule two: exercise

''There's much more emphasis on movement and muscle building to alleviate the effects of arthritis now,” says Jan. “Building up muscle strength improves the function of the joint and specific types of exercise can also improve balance for the lower limbs.”

“Exercise also slows down the effect of deterioration in joints due to ageing. Try low impact exercises such as cycling or rowing. Exercising in water is an excellent solution as your buoyancy takes stress and weight off your joints.”

In fact, hydrotherapy has become a common form of treatment for arthritis. “The warm water in a hydrotherapy pool soothes muscles and enables people to do exercise they couldn't do on dry land.”

Rule 3: Get moving

If exercising in a gym isn’t your thing then try dancing (especially if it involves moving your arms and hands) t'ai chi, yoga or even knitting … any activity that helps with dexterity, balance, firms up muscles, eases stress, and keeps the body supple. Remember that “motion is lotion”. Our article Being active with arthritis has more on this.

To supplement or not to supplement...

Many people with osteoarthritis, or those who have a few early twinges, try supplements, such as glucosamine with chondoitrin, green lipped mussel, fish oils, and rosehip. Evidence is mixed as to the effectiveness of these. With glucosamine, for example, some trials say it is helpful, and others claim it is not - while people who take them also report different results.

Replacing joints may be a final option if arthritis is disabling, but according to Jan, “alongside someone not being able to function normally, especially in activities of daily living, such as washing, dressing and being able to move around, there has to be X-ray evidence of severe joint degeneration to justify a joint replacement. Whenever a joint still has life in it, we try to keep it going."

5 ways to help prevent or delay the onset of osteoarthritis

1. Posture

Review how you use your body - what position do you spend your day in - are you sitting at a computer? How do you sleep at night? The Alexander Technique or yoga can be great for gaining awareness about where you are putting strain on your body and changing your existing habits.

2. Footwear

Wear shoes that absorb shock, such as trainers or running shoes, to minimise impact on weight bearing joints such as hips, knees and ankles. If you wear high heels you are putting enormous strain on your hips and knees.

4. Core stability

Pilates can help strengthen muscles in the tummy and buttocks which in turn protects the lower body.

5. Weight control

Being overweight puts strain on all your joints, but especially your hips, knees, ankles and feet. If you’re looking to lose weight, our article, How to lose weight well looks at the science behind weight loss and offers some top tips to help.

6. Exercise regularly

Exercise is essential for overall mental and physical health. It will help strengthen muscles around joints and can really boost your overall sense of wellbeing – or your feelgood factor, as we like to call it! Exercising outdoors boosts the benefits of exercising still further, as our article explains. If the thought of exercising leaves you cold, take a look at Getting active your way for lots of ideas on how to get moving more in a way you enjoy.

Additional support

If you’re an AXA Health member you can get specialist support for any problem affecting the muscles, bones or joints, without the need for a GP referral, through our Working Body service. They’ll arrange for you to talk to a physiotherapist who can assess your symptoms, talk to you about what they could mean, and help you plan what to do next. 

Check your cover online or speak to your claims team for details on how to access this service. The claims team can be contacted on 0800 454 080; their opening times are 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-5pm on Saturdays.

In the meantime, you may find the following resources helpful:

Being active with arthritis | AXA Health

Fitting change into your lifestyle | AXA Health

Exercises to improve balance and prevent falls | AXA Health

Arthritis | AXA Health hub

Diet and nutrition | AXA Health hub

Exercise and fitness | AXA Health hub

References

[1] Arthritis Research UK (2013) Osteoarthritis in general practice. Arthritis Research UK (www.arthritisresearchuk.org).

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