Ask the expert: newly diagnosed with arthritis?

18 November 2020
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We’ve seen from comments on social media and to our helpline that people can feel overwhelmed when they’re newly diagnosed with arthritis or an MSK condition.

We spoke to GP, Dr Natasha Usher about the questions she’s frequently asked by patients who’ve been recently diagnosed.

Every person’s experience of living with arthritis will be very different depending on the severity and condition/s they are living with. Hopefully,  we can provide you with helpful resources to give you more information and support. Read our latest coronavirus advice and learn more about what to expect from GP services during the pandemic.

I’ve just been diagnosed with arthritis. Can you point me to resources where I can learn more about my condition?

To learn more about the specifics of your conditions, look at the Versus Arthritis website. There’s lots of useful information on the conditions pages and advice on how to manage your symptoms.

You can also speak to others with arthritis via the Versus Arthritis online community and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Regularly check in with how you are feeling and if your joints stay painful or stiff despite medication or if you are struggling in daily activities, speak to your GP.

If you’re under the care of rheumatology, get in touch with the department if you have any problems with your medication, or if your joints flare.

I’ve been prescribed methotrexate; how does it work? Why does this have to be injected?

Methotrexate works, like many other drugs, by suppressing your immune system.

In inflammatory types of arthritis, your own immune system becomes active against your joints, so by reducing its activity, you can reduce the inflammation in your joints and the pain and swelling. Because of this you can be more prone to infections.

Sometimes you can feel slightly unwell the day after taking methotrexate, but this passes within 24 hours.

Injections are less likely to make you feel sick than the tablets, as they don’t have to go through your stomach.

How long will it take for the medication to work?

Most medications prescribed by a rheumatologist can take 4-6 weeks to start working, and it can take sometimes up to three months for the full effect to be felt.

Due to this delay, they will sometimes give an injection of a long acting steroid, which works more quickly and lasts for three months.

Steroids generally work more rapidly, but carry risk of more long-term side effects, so are sometimes used for flares.

What else can help my pain?

Some people take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Long-term these can cause ulcers and can affect kidneys, so they do need to be monitored.

Paracetamol can be quite useful for the pain, and when severe, codeine may also be used.

For osteoarthritis, rubbing in some ibuprofen gel or similar can also help, as can capsaicin, which is an extract from chillies which can be prescribed by your doctor. 

If pain is very severe, sometimes you can be referred to the pain clinic to see if other treatments may be suitable. Physiotherapy and exercise are often the best way to help manage pain.

Are there any complementary or alternative therapies I should consider and how might they help?

Many herbal remedies have been suggested for use, and also some spices such as turmeric.

There’s some evidence these may help inflammation and glucosamine was shown to possibly help osteoarthritis of the knee.

There are various therapies that have been used for arthritis, when considering these always check whether the practitioner is registered.

Acupuncture has been used for centuries for pain management, and some people can find it very helpful.

Massage and aromatherapy can both be very relaxing and help ease muscle spasms.

How should I explain my condition to my partner, family, and friends?

Arthritis causes a lot of pain in your joints; sometimes this can be worse than others. Some days you may not want to go out and socialise because of how you feel.

Sometimes you may need help with simple things like getting dressed, sometimes they might need to cook, or make you a cup of tea!

Also, you will have better days, when you will welcome seeing your friends or doing something more active.

Try to be open and explain how you’re feeling to them. You could also signpost them to some of the resources on the Versus Arthritis website to help them understand more about your symptoms.

Are there any foods or drinks (such as alcohol) that I should avoid or include in my diet?

Keeping your weight down is important to prevent too much loading on your joints. Alcohol in moderation is fine, although should not be mixed with some medications.

There’s some evidence that a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, and olive oil can help the symptoms of arthritis and is also healthy for your heart.

Am I able to exercise despite my condition?

Exercise is very important to keep your joints from stiffening up. If your arthritis is very active, those affected joints may need rest.

But, as this settles down, some exercise is good.

A physiotherapist can often give you specific exercises to support your joints. Read more about ways to stay active.

Are there any adjustments you’d suggest which will help me with daily tasks at home, or my work?

This depends on how you are affected. Occupational therapists can help with aids in the house, such as for bathing/showering, handrails for the toilet/bed/stairs, equipment to use for arthritis in the hands, etc.

In terms of work, it depends on what you do. Most workplaces can make adjustments, and indeed, they are obliged to do so under the Equalities Act (2010).

Generally occupational health at work will look at what you are able to do and what aids you may require, e.g different seating, being able to move at intervals, etc.

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