Aging Well: Taking control of arthritis

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Editor's Note: This article originally was published Sept. 22, 2008. It has been updated for accuracy.

Jenny Thomsen held up a large can of anchovies as evidence of a change she's made in response to a big disease.

Thomsen suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a particularly debilitating form of arthritis causing chronic pain and joint damage.

"It was like being hit by a Mack truck : it was an unbelievable change," Thomsen said during an arthritis presentation at Yampa Valley Medical Center last year.

While factors such as age and genetics are beyond our control, Thomsen and other speakers emphasized how taking control of weight, exercise, nutrition and other factors can help individuals prevent some types of arthritis or reduce painful symptoms.

Despite the seriousness of her condition, Thomsen is still able to swim, golf, work as a dietician and enjoy life. She attributes this largely to medication but also to a healthy lifestyle that includes maintaining her ideal weight and eating nutritious foods, such as salmon and anchovies - sources of omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce inflammation and encourage a healthy heart.

The progressive nature of Thomsen's disease eventually may make it too difficult to walk. If that happens, however, she knows she has done everything in her power to be as healthy as possible and still enjoy a good quality of life.

"I'm a living, breathing example that there is hope with RA," Thomsen said.

Understanding arthritis

About one in five adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with a form of arthritis, which is the leading cause of disability among adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Arthritis is not just prevalent among the elderly. About half diagnosed with the disease are younger than 65. Women are more at risk than men.

More than 100 diseases affecting the joints are considered arthritis. In addition to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, types include gout, lupus, fibromyalgia and juvenile arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, the most common, involves deterioration of the joint's cartilage or the cushion between bones. It often affects knees, hips, fingers, the neck and the lower back.

Although there can be some inflammation, it is considered a non-inflammatory form of arthritis. Signs or symptoms include joint pain, stiffness or difficulty moving a joint.

Osteoarthritis eventually can make it difficult for a person to walk or conduct daily activities, though some people may never experience more than moderate, intermittent pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis involves inflammation of the joint's lining caused by abnormal immune system activity, which essentially attacks healthy tissue.

The condition usually begins in the smaller joints of the fingers, hands and wrists. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, redness and swelling around the joints and fatigue. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis eventually can erode bone, cartilage, tendons and ligaments causing deformity and disability.

Many people with arthritis mistakenly think nothing can be done to help them. Although the causes of arthritis are unknown, researchers have identified various risk factors that can be changed to help prevent development of osteoarthritis and also help reduce pain and stiffness.

Great strides also have been made in developing medications to slow joint damage and relieve pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Early diagnosis is the key to successfully managing arthritis. Depending on the type of arthritis, a team of medical professionals can advise treatment, which could include medication, lifestyle changes, alternative therapies and/or surgery, suited to each individual.

Self-management

One of the best things a person can do to prevent or manage arthritis is to maintain a healthy weight and prevent excess pressure on joints. A 1992 study at the Boston University Arthritis Center found that losing just 11 pounds cuts some women's risk of developing knee osteoarthritis by 50 percent.

"Weight is one of the key things we have in our control to affect symptoms and progress of arthritis," physician Brian Harrington said at the arthritis presentation.

An important part of losing or maintaining healthy weight is exercise, but that's not the only benefit of physical activity for people with arthritis. Regular, moderate exercise has been found to strengthen muscles and bones, increasing flexibility and relieving stiffness and pain impeding daily activities.

Exercise also lessens fatigue, improves sleep and helps alleviate depression and anxiety associated with chronic conditions.

Helpful activities include walking, swimming, cycling, yoga and golf, which can be adapted to prevent strain on joints. The Arthritis Foundation also has developed fitness programs which are offered locally through the Visiting Nurse Association's Aging Well program.

Individuals with arthritis need to pace themselves, balancing activity with rest, and work with their doctor and/or physical therapist to determine the safest and most effective fitness routine.

A healthy diet is another important component of arthritis management. Not only will it help individuals maintain or lose weight, it can help prevent or slow the progress of some types of arthritis and help prevent other health complications.

The Arthritis Foundation provides information about likely benefits of various foods and supplements for arthritis. For example, Vitamin C and antioxidants in green tea and other sources have been found to help reduce the risk of osteoarthritis. Antioxidants and phytochemicals in plant-based foods such as veggies, fruit and nuts may also help fight inflammation.

Ginger and tumeric are among many supplements that may also help relieve pain, stiffness or other arthritic symptoms. It's important for individuals to consult with their doctor before trying any supplements to make sure they won't interact with any medications the person is taking or cause problematic side effects.

Before diving into research about supplements and specific foods, people with arthritis can start by following a high fiber, low fat diet that includes sufficient fruits and vegetables, protein, carbohydrates and essential vitamins. Avoiding alcohol, smoking and processed foods is also important.

For help developing a good dietary routine, individuals can consult their doctors and dieticians such as Thomsen, who specializes in nutrition for arthritis at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Other aspects of managing arthritis include minimizing stress and practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, warm baths and journaling.

It's also important to protect joints by not overdoing any activity and using adaptive tools to make everyday tasks, such as opening cans and turning the keys in the car ignition, easier. Sources for adaptive aids include Maxi Aids (www.maxiaids.com), Independent Living Aids (www.independentliving.com) and LS & S (www.lssproducts.com).

Various information in this report was obtained from the Arthritis Foundation.

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