Exercise should be the principal treatment for osteoarthritis, according to updated guidelines on the care and management of the condition by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is a painful condition associated with joint stiffness and reduced quality of life that affects 8.5 million people in the UK. Osteoarthritis most commonly occurs in the knees, hips, spine and small joints of the hands, but it can also occur in other joints.
The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in the joints and difficulty moving the affected joints or carrying out certain activities. Symptoms can vary from person to person, with associated pain arriving in episodes. Those affected by the condition can experience a number of symptoms. These include: joint tenderness, increased pain and stiffness after periods of inactivity, joints appearing larger or more knobbly than usual, a grating or cracking sound or sensation in the joints, limited range of movements in the affected joints and muscle weakness.
The main characteristics of the condition are damage and loss of joint-lining cartilage, damage to the adjacent bone and inflammation of the tissues around the joint. Osteoarthritis accounts for 115,000 hospital admissions in the UK each year. It can affect a person’s ability to undertake daily activities, and is one of the leading causes of pain and disability worldwide. Many osteoarthritis sufferers believe there is little they can do to lessen their discomfort, yet exercise can help the condition and ease pain, says the institute.
Professor Mark Baker, Centre for Clinical Practice Director at NICE, said: “There’s a common but mistaken belief that osteoarthritis is an inevitable part of ageing and that it will get worse, but that’s not the case. This updated guidance highlights that the core treatment for osteoarthritis remains exercise – this not only helps relieve pain for some people but also improves function.”
“The symptoms often caused by osteoarthritis, such as pain and limited joint movement, can be managed with muscle strengthening, exercise and weight loss if people are overweight,” adds Professor Phillip Conaghan, Chair of the NICE Guideline Development Group, and Professor of Musculoskeletal Medicine at the University of Leeds.
Osteoarthritis is a huge problem for overweight people in the UK, it is a major cause of reduction in quality of life
“Osteoarthritis is a huge problem for overweight people in the UK, it is a major cause of reduction in quality of life,” explains Professor Mike Lean, expert in human nutrition. “The main problems associated with obesity are physical pain and disability. Osteoarthritis is the main cause of physical disability and needing care. Obesity and osteoarthritis leads to inactivity, which causes more obesity and more pain. Tackling weight is vital.”
Finding an activity that appeals to you is key to using exercise to ease the symptoms of osteoarthritis, says Professor Alan Silman, of the charity Arthritis Research UK: “It’s important that people with osteoarthritis find a type of exercise they enjoy doing. Everyone can benefit from some sort of exercise, regardless of their condition. Stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercises are the ideal combination.”
These guidelines further reinforce the importance of having exercise professionals that are up to date with their knowledge, skills and qualifications. For those fitness professionals working with arthritic clients, holding a valid exercise referral qualification is imperative.