May is National Arthritis Awareness Month and the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation is working hard to educate Americans about the benefits of physical activity to prevent and manage the nation’s most common cause of disability. This month, the Foundation is launching a massive multiyear public awareness campaign to debunk the myths associated with arthritis. Some of the more common myths are:
- Only the elderly get arthritis.
- Cracking knuckles causes arthritis.
- Cold weather makes arthritis worse.
- Signs and symptoms are only aches and pains.
- There is nothing I can do about arthritis.
Hand Pain and Stiffness
For many of you reading this article, you may already have experienced pain and stiffness in your joints, particularly in your hands. Although arthritis can affect any joint, it most commonly attacks the hand. This is an ever-growing problem for the millions of Baby Boomers who worked factory and office jobs during their career.
What is Arthritis?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, “Arthritis is actually a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that can affect people of all ages, races and genders.” Since we have become inundated with online, TV and magazine ads about these issues you may be asking yourself, “What is the effect of arthritis on our country?” It’s actually a pretty big deal.
John H. Klippel, M.D., President and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation sums it up in a nutshell.
“Arthritis is a debilitating disease that profoundly impacts the lives of millions of Americans on a daily basis. The effects of the 46 million Americans with arthritis on the economy are enormous; the direct and indirect medical costs of this disease are estimated to be $128 billion each year. With the aging of baby boomers, the prevalence of arthritis is expected to rise by 40 percent – that is up to 67 million people – by the year 2030.”
With such a large portion of our population affected by this painful condition, there is no better time than now to become educated on the basic concepts and treatment options of arthritis.
Symptoms of Arthritis
The common denominators of most forms of arthritis are inflammation and stiffness; generally in that order. The way we experience inflammation is different for everyone, but keep a close eye out for these five cardinal signs:
- Loss of function
Loss of normal function is by far one of the most insidious signs of arthritis. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation states, “Arthritis is a more frequent cause of activity limitation than heart disease, cancer or diabetes and causes work limitations for nearly one in three people in the U.S.”
Some types of arthritis associated with inflammation include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Gouty arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease or DJD) is the most common form of arthritis. Somewhat of a misnomer, DJD is not an inflammatory process and really should not be named in the “arthritis” family, but because the signs/symptoms so closely resemble typical arthritis conditions it has been clumped into the group.
What Causes Arthritis?
This is a tricky question. Some forms of arthritis are autoimmune in nature, others genetic, and still others gastrointestinal. DJD, for instance, is caused by repetitive stress on the joints (known as microtrauma), chronic misuse, or chronic dysfunction of the joint generally occurring after an injury that never properly healed. Being the most prevalent of all arthritis conditions, DJD is also the most manageable and can even be reversed.
Treatment for Hand Arthritis
Because arthritis is an umbrella term for over 100 conditions there is not a simple answer on how to prevent and/or manage arthritis. However, there are some key home remedies to manage arthritis.
- Lose weight. Excess weight puts extra stress on your joints. This is particularly true for your knees and hips, but can also affect your hands as your entire body works together in what is called the “kinetic chain.”
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet: Whether you have DJD or one of the inflammatory arthopathies, you’ll benefit from a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods like kale, avocados, sweet potatoes, turmeric, green tea, extra virgin olive oil, and wild-caught salmon.
- Heat/Ice. Depending on your preference, try both and find out which works better for you. By icing or heating the affected joint for 20 minutes at a time up to three times a day, you will decrease the inflammation and many of your symptoms should be temporarily relived.
- Keep moving. Our joints are designed to move so, to prevent excess joint stiffness and pain, focus on keeping your hand moving. Try squeezing a stress ball or doing projects that require variable, constant hand movements like knitting or sculpting. Really, anything to get blood flowing and prevent stiffness.
- Avoid excessive repetitive movements. Yes, this means limit your texting and keyboard typing! If your job requires it, be sure to take ample breaks and stretch your hands to keep the joints from stiffening up.