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When You Have Arthritis

"For all the happiness mankind can gain / Is not in pleasure, but in rest from pain." –John Dryden

Rachel Carr, in her book Listen to Your Inner Self, tells of her survival of unremitting pain and depression from arthritis that began in her teens. A spinal injury, supposedly the result of a childhood accident, caused spinal nerve pressure that was eventually diagnosed as osteoarthritis. Treatment with large doses of aspirin for symptomatic relief of pain caused internal bleeding. Treatment in her twenties encompassed traction that brought little relief and left her exhausted from long sleepless nights. Cortisone injections were attempted and then discontinued because of intolerance. "The pain spread with full force, paralyzing me at times," she wrote, admitting that her arthritis forced her to retreat to bed, which resulted in muscle degeneration and joint pain and stiffness. Every physician she consulted would take new X-rays and announce that the spinal calcification had increased.

Finally, she turned to an Indian yogi, who encouraged her and gave her hope. His program for renewal called for recruiting the body′s own healing powers to heal her. She followed his plan of physical exercise, deep breathing, and meditation, and these gradually pushed the chronic pain, swelling, and depression out of her life. They became the wellspring from which she drew renewal after assaults on her being. "To gain equanimity," she wrote, "we must unite the body with the mind so we can ride either on the crest or in the trough of waves with a steady hand at the helm. Isn′t this what life is all about?"

Finally, she turned to an Indian yogi, who encouraged her and gave her hope. His program for renewal called for recruiting the body′s own healing powers to heal her. She followed his plan of physical exercise, deep breathing, and meditation, and these gradually pushed the chronic pain, swelling, and depression out of her life. They became the wellspring from which she drew renewal after assaults on her being. "To gain equanimity," she wrote, "we must unite the body with the mind so we can ride either on the crest or in the trough of waves with a steady hand at the helm. Isn′t this what life is all about?"

Almost 43 million people in the United States suffer from arthritis. For them, poet John Dryden′s words, written in the epigraph above, are achingly true. Not like a case of chicken pox or flu, arthritis is long lasting; and like cancer, arthritis is not one disease but many. More than 100 conditions are properly classified as types of arthritis, but all have different sets of symptoms, diagnostic tests, and patterns of treatment and care. Pain, though, is a common factor. It is no wonder arthritis sufferers feel overwhelmed at times.

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States, preventing millions from doing what others their age can do. Only heart disease outpaces arthritis as a cause of work disability. Arthritis is more common in women than in men, and it is more common in elders: almost one of every two Americans 65 years of age or older has it. This means, of course, that as the population ages, more and more people will have arthritis–60 million by 2020, according to estimates.

An "old" disease, arthritis appears unwilling to yield completely the secrets of its causes or cures. It is a disease that has been found in fossil remains of creatures that lived 100 million years ago and in the skeletons of ancient humans. Records of gout can be found in medieval manuscripts, but reports of rheumatoid arthritis were first recorded only about 200 years ago. Unlike other old diseases that generally seem to be on the decline, arthritis is increasing. Of those younger than 65 years who have arthritis, two million are permanently disabled, and their lost wages are thought to total $50 billion per year.

Characteristics That Increase Risk and Modifying Behavior to Reduce Risk

Certain characteristics increase the risk of having arthritis, but the most common one–increasing age–is not something that can be changed. Sex is another. Women are more prone than men to degenerative arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia (a type of rheumatism), and men are more likely than women to have ankylosing spondylitis. Twice as many women as men experience osteoarthritis of the knee. Repetitive use or overuse also puts an individual at increased risk, but in some careers, including carpet laying, house cleaning, or playing catcher in professional baseball, long-term occupational joint stress can only be modified, not eliminated. Being overweight also puts individuals, especially women, at increased risk of osteoarthritis of the knees. One report published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet in 1998 stopped short of blaming high heels for some cases of osteoarthritis of the knee in women, choosing instead to say that "the altered forces at the knee caused by walking in high heels may predispose to degenerative changes."

 

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