Counting the cost of arthritis


World Arthritis Day on October 12 has a resonance in Switzerland where almost 1.5 million people suffer from arthritis or rheumatic illnesses.

This content was published on October 12, 2005 - 15:25

For many, pain is only part of the story - in chronic cases the illness can alter the course of their lives and result in many years of lost income and opportunities.

Valérie Krafft from the Swiss League Against Rheumatism (SLAR) told swissinfo that one in three people would be affected by rheumatic illness at some stage in their lives.

"This is the total of all the people suffering from rheumatic illnesses of the skeleton but also of muscles, ligaments and tendons and soft tissue illnesses," Krafft explains.

Arthritis is the generic term for all the illnesses that cause pain to the back, the joints, bones, tendons and ligaments. There are more than 200 types of arthritis and rheumatic disease.

Poor detection

Rheumatic illness is often considered a disease of the elderly.

But although elderly people are more likely to suffer from certain forms of rheumatic illnesses, the more severe forms linked with inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, also affect younger people and even children.

Despite the prevalence of the disease, prevention and detection are inadequate, Krafft claims.

"Detection often comes late and once the degeneration of the joints has started, it is much more difficult to slow it down or avoid irreversible damage," she said.

One of SLAR's tasks is to raise awareness among general practitioners and the public.

"We are trying to make the public aware of these conditions. If symptoms persist, then you really should see your doctor."

Possible symptoms include pain, stiffness or swelling in the joints for three or more days a week over the period of a month. The illness also triggers extreme fatigue.

Another thing to look out for is stiffness in the joints after not moving for an extended period of time. Pain or discomfort in a joint that has a history of injury can also be an indicator of arthritis.

Costly illness

The consequences of developing a serious form of arthritis or other rheumatic illness can be devastating both financially and psychologically.

Krafft knows of two women in their fifties who have been living with the illness for up to 20 years.

The hardest part for these sufferers was coping with the continuous pain without knowing what the illness was. After the diagnosis came some degree of relief and of course treatment.

The sufferers also felt shame, fearing that their neighbours might think they were lazy or abusing the invalidity benefit system, because their illness was often invisible to outsiders.

Expenditure on health is only a small part of the costs of suffering from such a debilitating illness. Years of lost income and lost income-related pension contributions also have to be counted.

Krafft, however, is upbeat about treatment for rheumatic illnesses.

The conditions can be managed through a combination of medication, exercise, rest, weight-management, nutrition and even surgery. Complementary medicine also helps ease symptoms for some sufferers.

"The treatment is good at any stage, even if the illness is already advanced; the available drugs are still efficient but the earlier you can start treatment the more you can prevent or delay the degeneration."

In brief

October 12 is World Arthritis Day, the aim of which is to raise awareness of the illness in all its forms among the medical community, people with arthritis and the general public.

Symptoms of arthritis include pain, stiffness or swelling in the joints, especially after not moving for an extended period of time, and pain or discomfort in a joint that has a history of injury.

SLAR, an umbrella organisation, includes 21 cantonal organisations and four national patient organisations for different illnesses among its members.

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Key facts

Arthritis means inflammation of the joints.
The word rheumatism is more general, and is used to describe aches and pains in joints, bones and muscles.
There are more than 200 types of arthritis and rheumatic disease.
More than 100 million people in Europe and almost 1.5 million in Switzerland have some form of arthritis or rheumatism.

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