IF you think of a typical arthritis sufferer, you usually picture someone in old age, not an elite athlete like Paula Radcliffe.
But the marathon runner is walking proof that the condition blights younger people’s lives too, as osteoarthritis forced the 38-year-old world record holder to pull out of the Olympics.
A recent report by the charity Arthritis Care found that while the average age of osteoarthritis (OA) diagnosis is 57, as many as one in five people under 45 are found to have the problem.
A major factor in Radcliffe’s condition was clearly the repetitive foot stress caused by long-distance running and she has described the joint in her left foot as ‘degenerative and badly damaged’.
Consultant rheumatologist Professor Simon Bowman explained that athletes like Radcliffe develop OA for slightly different reasons than less athletic people.
“Although we call osteoarthritis wear-and-tear arthritis, for most people it isn’t necessarily related to the activities they’ve done,” he said.
“But athletes are putting so much stress on their joints, and someone like Paula Radcliffe would be more prone to arthritic problems because she’s an elite athlete.”
But as the Arthritis Care survey shows, you don’t have to be an athlete or elderly to get OA, which is the most common form of arthritis, affecting around eight and a half million Britons.
The survey, OANation 2012, found that 71 per cent of people with OA are in constant pain, and one in eight say the pain is often ‘unbearable’.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage which covers joint surfaces and normally cushions movement is worn thin, leading to friction and pain. It can occur in any joint, but is most common in the hips, knees and hands.
Pain and stiffness are the most common symptoms of OA, and sometimes extra bone can be formed round the joints, further restricting normal movement. There may also be secondary inflammation, causing swelling.
But OA is much more complex than just simple wear-and-tear, and has both environmental and genetic causes.
Prof Bowman said OA is becoming more common, with the OANation survey predicting that cases are set to double to more than 17 million by 2030.
The huge expected rise is because two of the main risk factors for developing the disease, being overweight and over 50, are expected to increase massively over the next 20 years.
“While there’s nothing we can do about ageing, we can manage our diet and weight and minimise the stress on our joints,” says Judith Brodie, chief executive of Arthritis Care.
She says keeping moving is also important, as it helps manage the pain.
Current treatments only relieve OA symptoms, and medication is usually painkillers and anti-inflammatory tablets.
Physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy can also help, says Prof Bowman, and joint replacement surgery is a last resort for the worst cases.
But lifestyle changes can make a huge difference both to the chances of developing the condition and the suffering that occurs if it’s already started. Losing weight, taking more exercise and eating a healthy diet can really help.
For people worried about causing additional damage to joints, opting for low-impact exercise, such as swimming, walking and aqua aerobics, will still give you the benefits of a work-out without straining joints.