Arthritis means ‘inflammation of a joint’. People of all ages can get arthritis, including babies, although it is more common as you get older.
Key points about arthritis
Arthritis is a term used for more than 140 conditions that affect your joints.
It can involve almost any part of your body, most often your knee, hip, spine and other weight-bearing joints, but also smaller joints like fingers and toes.
Some types of arthritis also affect your skin and internal organs.
Pain and stiffness are the most common symptoms.
The 3 most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout arthritis.
While arthritis is a chronic condition with no cure, there are things you can do to manage it well.
What are the different types of arthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It usually affects the 50-plus age group, and is slightly more common in women than men. It involves a change to the protective cushion of the cartilage covering the ends of your bones, where two bones meet to form a joint.
Rheumatoid arthritis can start at any age but usually occurs between the ages of 20 and 55. Three times as many women than men are affected. If not properly treated, ongoing inflammation can progressively damage your joints and cause joint deformities. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, so it can also affect other systems in your body.
Gout causes sudden attacks of pain in some joints. It can affect any joint but the first attack usually affects your big toe or another part of your foot. The joint becomes painful and swollen and the skin over the joint can become red and shiny. If not treated, gout can become chronic, causing damage to your joints and bones.
While anyone can be affected by arthritis at any stage of life, there are 5 groups most at risk:
Overweight people – the heavier you get, the more pressure there is on your joints.
Older people – ageing increases the chance of getting arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis due to changes to your joints.
Sports people – injuries from contact sports and other very physical sports are likely to lead to osteoarthritis. Prompt and appropriate treatment at the time of injury lessens the risk of long-term damage.
Women – more women get arthritis than men, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, which most often develops in young or middle-aged women.
Māori and Pasifika men – Māori and Pasifika men in Aotearoa New Zealand have the highest rate of gout arthritis in the world.
Other risk factors include:
having a family history of arthritis
if you have had a joint injury or joint infection
having worked in heavy physical occupation.
Arthritis in children
Children can develop arthritis too. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a term used to describe arthritis in children. It has also been called juvenile chronic arthritis (JCA). Around 1 in 1000 children are affected by juvenile arthritis. It is commonly diagnosed between the ages of 1 and 4 years, but it can occur at any age.
What are the symptoms of arthritis?
You may have arthritis if you have:
swelling in one or more joints
early morning stiffness for more than a few minutes
recurring pain or tenderness in one or more joints
obvious redness or warmth in one or more joints
unexplained weight loss, fever or weakness combined with joint pain.
If you have any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, see your doctor.
What is the treatment for arthritis?
Treatment depends on the type of arthritis and how severe it is. It's important to get a correct diagnosis before beginning any treatment. Generally, for most types of arthritis, the treatment includes:
in some cases surgery to correct or prevent deformity, increase mobility and improve quality of life.
What self-care can I do with arthritis?
A range of self-care practices can help you manage and reduce the effects of arthritis.
These may include:
weight management to prevent extra stress on weight-bearing joints
evidence-based complementary therapies.
Self-care courses and programmes
Research has shown that people who exercise regularly, practice relaxation and/or use other self-care techniques have less pain and are more active than people who do not self-manage their condition. Courses are designed to give you the skills needed to take a more active part in your arthritis care, together with a healthcare team.
Arthritis NZ employs skilled educators. They can give you information and advice, refer you to other health professionals and/or agencies, put you in touch with support and exercise groups throughout the country. Although they don't provide special equipment and aids for daily living, they can let you know where to get them in your area.
Dave Cox is the Clinical Lead in the Health Advice team at Arthritis New Zealand. He is a member of the passionate team at Arthritis New Zealand who are striving to improve the lives of every New Zealander affected by arthritis.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dave Cox, Clinical Lead Health Advice, Arthritis NZ
Last reviewed: 21 Apr 2021
Key points about what food to eat for arthritis
Keeping to a healthy weight through healthy eating and exercise is recommended to improve arthritis symptoms.
While there’s no miracle diet for arthritis, many foods can help fight inflammation and improve joint symptoms.
If you have gout arthritis, you need to limit how much you eat of some foods, as well as limit alcohol, to help avoid attacks (see below).
Talk to your doctor or dietitian before cutting out any food groups to make sure you still get the vitamins and minerals you need.
What are the benefits of healthy eating?
Healthy eating can help you manage your arthritis as well as reduce your risk of other long-term conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, obesity and osteoporosis. It can also help protect you against some potential medicine side effects. If you are overweight and have osteoarthritis, even a small weight loss can greatly improve your mobility and health.
What is healthy eating?
Healthy eating is one of the keys to good health.
The Ministry of Health recommends eating from each of the 4 food groups every day:
vegetables and fruits
grain foods, mostly whole grains and those naturally high in fibre
milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced fat
a group of protein foods consisting of legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry and/or red meat with the fat removed.
Choose and/or prepare foods and drinks:
with unsaturated fat (canola oil, olive oil, margarine) instead of saturated fat (butter, cream, coconut oil)
that are low in salt (sodium)
with little or no added sugar
that are mostly ‘whole’ and less processed.
The Ministry of Health recommends women eat least 5 servings of vegetables each day and men eat at least 6 servings of vegetables each day, and for all adults to each at least 2 pieces of fruit every day. Choose colourful vegetables and fruit as these are rich in vitamins and substances known as antioxidants that protect your health.
While further research is needed, there is some evidence that making some changes to the standard healthy eating advice may help with arthritis symptoms, particularly changes that help to reduce inflammation.
For example, current evidence suggests that omega-3-fatty acids found in oily fish are likely to be helpful if you have an inflammatory type of arthritis.
Some studies suggest that eating plant-based food, specifically vegan diets, can help control rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, due to removing animal products. Eating low-fat vegan food improves symptoms such as pain, joint tenderness and joint swelling.
Other research also points to benefits from a Mediterranean style of eating, rich in olive oil, wholegrains, vegetables, fruits and legumes (beans, peas, lentils). This is thought to be due to the protective properties of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins, but also by influencing the gut microbiome.
If you avoid eating any food groups, it’s a good idea to get some advice from your GP or a dietitian. You may need supplements, eg, vitamin B12 if you are vegan.
Why is weight important with arthritis?
The most important link between what you eat and arthritis is your weight. Being overweight puts an extra burden on your weight-bearing joints (back, hips, knees, ankles, feet) when they are already damaged and under strain.
Because of the way joints work, the pressure in your knee joints is more than your body weight when you walk. If you are overweight and have arthritis in any of your weight-bearing joints, losing weight helps you more than food supplements. if you need to lose weight, talk to your doctor or dietitian about the best healthy eating plan for you.
Some people with rheumatoid arthritis are underweight and find it hard to put on enough to reach a healthy weight. Small frequent meals (5 or 6 a day) help avoid weight loss. It can also help to eat more foods high in healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturated fat), such as oily fish, avocado, nuts, olives and oils.
Can changing what I eat help my arthritis?
All forms of arthritis can potentially be helped with diet and lifestyle changes.
For example, it helps improve your symptoms of gout arthritis if you:
choose small servings of meat, chicken and seafood
enjoy low-fat dairy foods every day
drink less alcohol (beer, wine and spirits) and soft drinks that contain sugar or artificial sweeteners
drink plenty of water.
For all forms of arthritis, eating certain foods and avoiding others can help fight inflammation and improve joint symptoms. Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and beans, and avoid processed foods and foods high in saturated fat.
Do I need to avoid any foods with arthritis?
Some people feel that cutting out ‘acidic fruit’ such as oranges and grapefruit, and vegetables from the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, and eggplants) helps arthritis. There is no scientific evidence that leaving out either of these types of foods helps, and not eating these foods means you may miss out on helpful nutrients.
There is some evidence that a vegetarian diet is helpful for some people with inflammatory arthritis. If you decide to try this, it can become difficult to obtain enough energy, protein and minerals (eg, iron and calcium) from your food. If you want to try this, see a dietitian for advice.
Keeping a food diary for up to 3 months may be useful to see if what you eat is affecting your symptoms. You might be able to identify a possible link. The problem with this approach is that, for many, symptoms can vary as a normal part of the condition, and any correlation with what you eat and your symptoms may be just a coincidence.