Osteoarthritis can strike at any age, writes Abi Jackson.
THERE are a few conditions we automatically think of as being problems of old age. Dementia, vision, and hearing decline. And osteoarthritis...?
But this isn’t entirely accurate — osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint disease, can strike in younger age groups too.
“Most people think arthritis is an inevitable part of ageing, but in fact, it can affect anyone at any age,” says Dr Tom Margham, a GP with a specialist interest in arthritis. “Regardless of age, the condition can have a significant impact on everyday life.”
Osteoarthritis is relatively common, more than one in five in Ireland. And while the majority will be older, it’s not uncommon for people to develop the condition in their 40s, and sometimes even younger.
Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis is associated with wear and tear. In other words, joint damage that develops over time.
For some people, this damage happens faster and is more problematic, with the bones’ protective cartilage breaking down, resulting in painful, stiff, inflamed and swollen joints. Movement and mobility can also be affected, and sometimes bony growths or ‘spurs’ can occur.
“We still don’t know exactly why some people get osteoarthritis at a younger age. [But] we know there are many factors that can contribute to the development of the condition, including genetics, weight and joint injury,” says Dr Margham.
Wear and tear injuries can be common, and joint pain is something many, if not most, people will experience at certain points.
But Dr Margham stresses it’s important to get any ongoing or worsening joint pain checked out properly — especially if accompanied by inflammation and swelling.
You may need tests, which can rule out other potential conditions, as well as help diagnose osteoarthritis.
And if you do have it, getting the right advice means you’ll be able to start managing the condition in the best possible way.
“Osteoarthritis can be very severe, and the pain it causes can make everyday tasks, such as getting dressed and cooking, difficult,” says Dr Margham — but there are many things you can do.
“You can lose weight, if you are overweight, remain active, and try simple treatments alongside medication, such as cold and heat packs.”
When Ruby James, 55, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis nine years ago, in her mid-40s, she recalls people being shocked at the news.
“The most common reaction I get is, ‘you’re too young to have that’,” she says.
Keeping active is something she is passionate about — not only does she enjoy it, but it plays a central role in managing her arthritis. After a flare-up in 2010, she knew she had to take control of the situation.
“I’d read that yoga was good, so I joined a beginners’ class. This made it worse for me, but the instructor suggested I take a look at Pilates, which I did, although there are some movements and positions I just cannot do,” Ruby recalls.
Over time, and with advice from her physio, she’s worked out which exercises work, and which are best avoided.
Now, alongside eating healthily — with lots of oily fish and iron-rich veg — plus meditation, and anti-inflammatory gels and painkillers needed, it’s part of her everyday routine.
“If I didn’t keep active, I think my condition would become more of a problem,” she says.
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