Arthritis a byproduct of lifestyleMore Koreans are taking up leisure sports than ever, leading to more injured joints than ever. Whether you’re running a marathon, hitting the slopes, putting on inline skates or going hiking, your joints are at risk.
Arthritis is a common problem with osteoarthritis and rheumatism being the two most common types. Osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis, usually affects people over the age of 40. Sixty-five percent of those 65 or older suffer from osteoarthritis, because joint tissue gradually degrades over time. Rheumatism, or rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, causes a sudden inflammation of the joints. This is most frequent in those between the ages of 20 and 40.
When former athletes complain of a “trick knee” or when senior citizens complain about joint pain on rainy days, both are referring to osteoarthritis. As people get older, the cartilage and fluid sacs between their joints begin to disintegrate. Once this protection and cushioning is gone, the bones begin to rub together. This in turn causes bones to form growths called spurs, which can be even more painful.
Sports-related injuries to joints can contribute to osteoarthritis. Obesity can also be a factor, by putting more weight on one’s hips, knees and ankle bones, the three most common places where osteoarthritis develops.
Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Around 1 percent of the population suffers from the disease, with women being two or three times more likely to develop it. The cause of rheumatism is still unknown, but it begins when antibodies begin to attack healthy tissue. The disease is first seen in the wrists and hands, and can be diagnosed with an x-ray or blood test.
“There seem to be hereditary factors as well as hormonal and environmental factors,” said Dr. Song Jung-soo at Chung-Ang University Medical Center, referring to more women suffering from the disease. “The antibodies cannot distinguish healthy cells from unhealthy cells.”
Rheumatoid arthritis goes through different stages of inflammation and remission. In the beginning, joints start stiffening and reddening when the synovium, a thin layer of tissue that lines joints, swells. Symptoms include pain and discomfort in symmetrical parts of the body as well as fever, loss of appetite, fatigue and anemia. The body then reacts by trying to cushion the joint, thickening the synovium. Finally, antibodies assault the areas around joints by breaking down bone, ligaments, tendons, synovium and cartilage, resulting in deformed joints that have difficulty bending.
According to Mr. Song, treating osteoarthritis must start with the patient changing his or her lifestyle. Exercises such as swimming and bicycling put less, or little, pressure on joints and can strengthen muscles. Floor exercise and yoga, as well as correcting one’s posture, can also help. Patients with obesity must start dieting. “Oxygen is transferred through muscles, and strengthening the muscles surrounding the joints can improve the condition and prevent the further development of osteoarthritis,” Dr. Song said.
If lifestyle treatment fails, medicinal treatment and physical therapies begin. Painkillers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or medicines to improve the cartilage can be injected to the joints. If the disease develops further, transplanting healthy cartilaginous plates can be an option. Healthy cartilaginous plates can be collected from knee joints and reproduced, then used to replace damaged plates. Anthroscopy can be used to extract suspended solid parts, such as cartilage and bone scraps, by injecting an endoscope. If that doesn’t work, the entire joint may be replaced with an artificial one, which is usually made of a compound metal. Recent improvements in technologies led to a development of more effective artificial joints, which can last up to 20 years and will not damage the surrounding bones.
Pharmacological therapy is mainly used to treat rheumatism; the techniques include immunosuppressive therapy, anti-inflammation therapy and cortisone shots. Rheumatism was once thought to be an incurable disease, but early diagnosis and treatment can lead to a complete cure.
In Korea and elsewhere, glucosamine and chondroitin have been widely used, as they are believed to help regenerate cartilage. However, there are debates over the effectiveness of taking glucosamine and chondroitin.
“Although patients hope that consuming these materials can help regenerate cartilage, research has found that they are digested in the stomach and discharged,” Mr. Song said. “It’s like eating kneebone soup.”
These materials have not been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of arthritis, he said.
by Limb Jae-un