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Body

Arthritis: Know the warning signs

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is often viewed by many as being part and parcel of ageing. In fact, arthritis can affect anyone of any age, even young children. And, at its worst it can be so debilitating that it has a serious impact on a sufferer's independence.

Types of arthritis

There are 2 common types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting the cartilage that lines our joints in a way that can’t be repaired by the body. It’s also the form of arthritis most likely to be overlooked, as symptoms can come and go according to things like your activity levels and the weather. In more severe cases, however, the symptoms can be continuous and life-limiting. These include:

  • Tenderness, pain and stiffness in the joints

  • Increased pain and stiffness after periods of immobility

  • Joints that look slightly larger or more knobbly than usual

  • A sensation, or the sound of grating or cracking in the joints

  • Limited movement in the joints

  • Weakness and muscle wastage

The joints where these symptoms appear most often are the knees, hips and hands, although osteoarthritis can appear in any joint in the body, so don’t discount warning signs if you're experiencing them elsewhere.

Rheumatoid arthritis

The other common form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis differs from osteoarthritis because as well as affecting the joints, it can affect other parts of the body, too. It is also the most unpredictable form of arthritis, with some cases developing over several weeks and others over just a few days. The symptoms include:

  • A throbbing, aching joint pain

  • Stiffness in the joints

  • Swelling, warmth and redness around the joints. In some cases, firm swellings called rheumatoid nodules may appear.

  • Tiredness and a lack of energy

  • A high temperature

  • Sweating

  • Poor appetite and, by extension, weight loss

Most sufferers typically experience the first three symptoms but it's definitely worth taking the other symptoms as seriously. 

Treating arthritis

Unfortunately, there's no cure for arthritis. However, there are ways in which your symptoms can be managed through physiotherapy and medication.

Controlling your symptoms

If a visit to your GP to diagnose such symptoms confirms that you are suffering from arthritis, you don’t need to resign yourself to an inactive lifestyle. There are a number of things you can do to help lessen the effects of your symptoms;

1. Regular Exercise

Regular exercise will keep your fitness levels up, help prevent muscle wastage, improve your overall quality of life and even strengthen your joints. Just make sure that you only take on what you can manage – even a simple walk or leisurely swim can help. If you aren’t sure what kind of exercise you’re most suited to, don’t be afraid to speak to your GP about a personalised plan.

2. Lose excess weight

This is a simple way of relieving some of the pressure on your joints. The safest and most effective way to lose weight sensibly is to eat better, and move more. Trying to exercise is a great start, and a change in diet will complement this. Simple, healthy changes like correctly portioned meals (half vegetables, a quarter carbohydrates and a quarter protein) can make all the difference.

3. Use hot or cold packs

The symptoms of osteoarthritis in particular can be subdued using hot or cold packs, or even a simple hot water bottle placed on the affected area. You can try manual therapy, which involves a physiotherapist using stretching techniques to keep your joints soft and supple.

4. Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can be very effective to help relieve symptoms of arthritis. You'll be given a tailored programme from your physiotherapist based on your individual needs as well as advice on increasing exercise and how to manage pain. Find out about physiotherapy treatment available with Benenden Health membership.

Arthritis in children - juvenile idiopathic arthritis

Although not as common, arthritis in children, or juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is thought to affect 1,000 children in the UK every year. JIA mainly affects children and teenagers with inflammation of the membrane lining their joints. These joints can then become swollen, painful or stiff which, over time, can lead to damage to the cartilage or bone. It is thought juvenile idiopathic arthritis occurs in children due to a problem with their immune system.

Types of JIA

There are seven types of juvenile idiopathic arthritis:

  • Systemic JIA – affects the whole body. Sufferers may experience high fevers, during which the person may feel ill or develop a rash which may appear and disappear quickly

  • Oligoarthritis – affects less than four joints where the person will notice swelling, stiffness and pain, often in the knee or ankle joints. On occasions this may also cause inflammation of the iris

  • Polyarticular arthritis – this affects more girls than boys with pain often occurring in the small joints in the hand, the person may experience lumps or bumps on parts of the body subjected to pressure when sitting down

  • Psoriatic arthritis – when a person suffers from psoriasis and arthritis together. Learn more about psoriasis here.

  • Enthesitis-related arthritis – affects the lower joints such as the spine and ankle

  • Undifferentiated arthritis – if a child’s arthritis doesn’t fit into other categories a doctor will place them in this group

Treating childhood arthritis

As with arthritis, there is no cure for juvenile idiopathic arthritis but steps can be taken to limit the severity of damage to the joints and ease the pain of someone suffering with JIA.

Medication

For some children and teenagers, taking ibuprofen tablets can help reduce inflammation when symptoms are at their most severe. However, some people who are more seriously affected may have to take a weekly medication. More recently, doctors can recommend medications that help to control the immune system and limit the severity of their symptoms.

Physical Therapy

Exercises that improve flexibility can help people control their symptoms of arthritis. Heat therapy (using a warm towel or taking a hot bath) is another good option. This is used on children before movement or exercise as it helps to ease stiffness and loosen joints to make day-to-day activities less painful.

Although it is unlikely that a child's joints will get badly damaged, a doctor may recommend surgery to repair damaged joints if they believe it is necessary.

If you've been experiencing some of the warning signs of arthritis, we hope that this article has been useful, and encouraged you to contact your GP. Arthritis is something that can be controlled and that doesn’t have to take away your independence.

If you're struggling to be seen by the NHS you can get access to self-managed or face-to-face physiotherapy after six months of membership with Benenden Health.