Arthritis is, in fact, an umbrella term used to refer to several different disorders. Among these are osteoarthritis, which involves the gradual loss of cartilage and overgrowth of bone in the joints, especially the knees, hips, spine and fingertips, and rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the joints and, sometimes, other parts of the body as well.
While not all forms of arthritis are preventable, there is much you can do to alter the course and severity of the disease.
* Eliminate food sensitivities. Foods that can worsen osteoarthritis include red meat, sugar, fats, salt, caffeine and nightshade plants (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines). Dairy foods are another offender, but the problem lies with the dairy protein, rather than the fat, so skimmed-milk products are as risky as the whole-milk ones (Scand J Rheumatol, 1979; 8: 249-55).
* Follow a Mediterranean-type diet. This consists primarily of fish, fruit, vegetables, cereals, beans and neutral fats such as olive oil, and may be a preventative. It has been associated with as much as a 56-per-cent reduction in disease activity (joint swelling, tenderness and pain), and better movement and vitality (Ann Rheum Dis, 2003; 62: 208-14). One reason for this may be that such a largely plant-based diet is high in certain anti-inflammatory compounds such as essential fatty acids and enzymes.
* Consume good fats to keep the joints lubricated. Polyunsaturated oils and omega-3 supplements have a mild beneficial effect in high doses. Fish oil (10 g/day) has been shown to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (Arthritis Rheum, 1994; 37: 824-9). Borage, evening primrose and blackcurrant seed oils contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an anti-inflammatory fatty acid. Taking borage oil (1-3 g/day) for at least three months may reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (Ann Intern Med, 1993; 119: 867-73; Arthritis Rheum, 1996; 39: 1808-17).
* Avoid bad fats. Meat is high in a specific fatty acid (arachidonic acid) that is believed to promote inflammation in the body. Vegetarian diets reduce your intake, and vegan diets eliminate it almost completely. Researchers have found that vegan diets are permanently beneficial for those with rheumatoid arthritis (Scand J Rheumatol, 1986; 15: 219-23). Maintaining a strict vegan diet can improve rheumatoid symptoms in up to 40 per cent of sufferers (Rheumatology, 2001; 40: 1175-9).
* Lose excess weight. Extra weight increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knees, hands and hips (Arthritis Rheum, 2003; 48: 1024-9; Arthritis Rheum, 2003; 48: 1030-3; Rheumatol [Oxford], 2002; 41: 1155-62). Women are especially at risk. In men, excess weight increases the chances of developing gout.
* Fasting. Several studies have shown that supervised fasting can relieve symptoms of arthritis (Lancet, 1991; 338: 889-902), and help identify food allergies and sensitivities that lead to the disease.
* Regular moderate exercise. This is essential for slowing deterioration of the joints. Activities that don't put stress on joints, but which strengthen the surrounding bones, muscles and ligaments are helpful for many types of arthritis and may also be preventative. Good choices include cycling, walking and swimming, but avoid weight-bearing or impact exercises.
* Avoid injuries. Whatever your age, serious injuries to the joints - torn ligaments, torn cartilage or broken bones - can lead to arthritis later in life. People who injure their knees as teenagers and young adults are nearly three times more likely than those without such injuries to have osteoarthritis by the time they reach age 65 (Ann Intern Med, 2000; 133: 321-8).
* Try glucosamine. Many double-blind trials have shown that glucosamine sulphate reduces symptoms of osteoarthritis (Arzneim Forsch, 1998; 48: 469-74; Clin Ther, 1980; 3: 260-72), and some experts believe it can also prevent it developing in those who are at risk. Although some have expressed fears over long-term supplementation, a recent trial found that, over three years of supplementation (1500 mg daily), blood sugar levels were not affected and there were almost no side-effects (Lancet, 2001; 357: 251-6).