“Ouch!” the female assistant at the travel agency takes her palms off the keyboard to crack her fingers; there's a swelling in the thumb joint.

“Aaah!” the elderly homemaker kneading chappatti dough holds her lower back and breathes deeply, willing the sharp pain to go away.

“Mmmaa!” the frail woman climbing the kutcha steps with a load of bricks pauses, clutches a knee briefly, and moves on.

The PhD student checking cultures in the lab keeps rubbing her left wrist. Why is it so painful?

Matters of the joint

Familiar aches and pains? There is bad news for women. Arthritis (World Arthritis Day was on October 12), a generic name for over 100 diseases and conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissues and cause mild-to-severe pain, joint tenderness and swelling, can affect anyone — race, gender, age no bar.

And, according to a Mayo Clinic Study, the incidence (frequency of occurrence) as well as prevalence (total number of cases in a given population) of rheumatoid arthritis among women is rising. Experts quoted in Arthritis Day, Arthritis Today and other websites say 60 per cent of those with arthritis are female, and several of the common arthritic conditions in the elderly are more prevalent among women. “There is no statistical proof (for India), but, in our practice, we see more women with arthritis than men,” says PV Jayashankar, president, Tamil Nadu Orthopaedic Association, and consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Sundaram Medical Foundation.

Brace yourself for these conditions: Fibromyalgia (muscular pain, fatigue, loss of sleep, stiffness and, sometimes, depression and/or anxiety); rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (chronic inflammation of joints and internal organs leading to swelling, stiffness, deformity in joints and limited movement); lupus (inflammatory disease that may affect joints, skin, kidneys); osteoporosis (where bones lose mass, become brittle and cause rounded shoulders, loss of height and painful fractures; infectious arthritis, caused by bacterial/viral infection; and tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons). Having one may increase the risk of contracting others.

Arthritis could be hereditary — people with a family history of arthritis are more likely to develop arthritis themselves; the older you get, the more likely you'll develop it; those who are overweight are at an increased risk of becoming arthritic; injury to joints may cause arthritis; also, the kind of work you do may play a role — those working in an assembly line, or with 12-hour shifts in front of the computer may become victims to joint ache; and if you've been ill or suffered a joint infection, you could be a candidate for the condition.

The risky category

So, who among women are more likely to have “arthritis” stamped on their medical report? Those who choose a “sedentary lifestyle, are obese, are pre-disposed to inflammatory arthritis such as RA, have a touch of diabetes, hypothyroidism and hypercholesterolemia,” says Dr. Jayashankar. Others at risk would be post-menopausal women, those with a family history of osteoporosis, and those who smoke and drink. It's also a side-effect of glucocorticoid medications. Researchers at Mayo Clinic have discovered severe arthritis in a subset of women taking medication (aromatase inhibitors) for breast cancer.

You've been ignoring that twinge in the knee. Do you apply a pain balm? Check-in for an oil massage? “Not enough”, says Dr. Jayashankar. Oil massages are temporary pain relievers, he points out. Treatment depends on how bad the joint wear-out or inflammation is.

How difficult it is for you to walk, climb stairs, bend or sit? If it is the early stages, you might be prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs followed by physiotherapy. Or, injections — cartilage protective agents and steroids. At intermediate stages, apart from the above, surgery (osteotomies) might be recommended. At the severest stage, you would be wheeled in for arthroscopic procedures or joint replacement.

Arthritis is painful, limits mobility, and has serious consequences for women and their families. You can prevent it with planned exercises, yoga, nutritional supplements and weight control. At the first stab of joint pain, go for an examination, medication and treatment. Relax, have a massage, and try heat/hydro therapy.

Stay pain-free

Walk, swim, practise yoga/tai chi and do weight training to keep joints flexible and muscles strong.

Exercise. An Australian study suggests that the more older women exercised, the better their chances of staying pain-free.

Physical activity is the pill for preventing stiff, achy joints that lead to debilitating arthritis.

Keep off weight, a leading risk factor for arthritis.

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