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Arthritis in the elderly

Arthritis means inflamed joints, and there are many types of arthritis. The commonest type is osteoarthritis, which is a problem of wear and tear due to excessive use over the years and to old injuries in those joints. Most cases of arthritis are mild, and people cope with it. Arthritis does not necessarily get worse as you get older; sometimes it can get less painful, (arthritis in the lumbar spine is a good example of this).

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

  • pain, swelling or stiffness in one or more joints
  • pain or stiffness in the back or neck
  • pain and stiffness after heavy activity such as gardening or housework or long walks and on getting up in the mornings; light activity might actually relieve some of the symptoms

Which joints are affected?

Osteoarthritis mostly affects the weight-bearing joints such as the spine, knees and hips. The base of the thumb, the ends of the fingers and the big toes are also common sites.

What is the treatment?

There is no cure, but there are many ways to make life more comfortable and keep you mobile and independent.

Diet

Keep your weight down to avoid unnecessary wear on the joints. No particular diet has been proved to cause, or improve, osteoarthritis.

Exercise

Keep a good balance of adequate rest with sensible exercise (such as walking, cycling and swimming), but stop any exercise or activity that increases the pain.

Heat

It is usual to feel more comfortable when the weather is warm. A hot-water bottle, warm bath or electric blanket can soothe the pain and stiffness. Avoid getting too cold.

Physiotherapy

This can be most helpful in improving muscle tone, reducing stiffness and keeping you mobile.

Walking aids

Shoe inserts, good footwear and a walking stick can help painful knees, hips and feet.

Medication

Aspirin and paracetamol are effective pain-killers. Your doctor may prescribe special anti-arthritic medications, which should be taken with food. Inform your doctor if you have had a peptic ulcer or get indigestion.

Special equipment

It is possible to increase your independence at home. There is a wide range of inexpensive equipment and tools that can help with cooking, cleaning and other household chores. These can be discussed with your physiotherapist or occupational therapist.

Surgery

Modern surgery can give excellent results with relief of severe pan for most joints. The new techniques and artificial joints are improving all the time, and so there is no need to suffer with severe pain.

Osteoarthritis of the hip

Replacement of your worn-out joint with an artificial hip made of a combination of metal or plastic is a very common operation. More than 90 per cent of these are most successful.

Osteoarthritis of the knee

Modern knee replacements are also giving excellent results, and if you have crippling knee pain this operation can give great relief.

Copyright 1995: John Murtagh, Professor of General Practice
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

North East Valley Division General Practice, Victoria, Australia, Disclaimer 
Level 1, Pathology Building, Repatriation Campus, A&RMC, Heidelberg West VIC 3081. .. map
Phone: 03 9496 4333, Fax: 03 9496 4349,  Email: nevdgp@nevdgp.org.au
Please note: NEVDGP does not provide an on-line consultation

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