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New data emphasise the need for a national public health approach to address osteoarthritis

Published on 11 October 2013

Projections by Arthritis Research UK highlight the escalating impact of knee osteoarthritis; over 8 million people in the UK are predicted to be seeking treatment for the condition in general practice by 2035.Policy Image

Osteoarthritis is the most common musculoskeletal condition in older people. Around a third of people aged 45 years and over in the UK, a total of 8.75 million people, have sought treatment from their general practitioner for osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis can develop in any joint in the body, but the knee and hip are most often affected.

Loss of movement and pain
Osteoarthritis affects the joints, causing them to become painful and stopping them moving freely. The impact of osteoarthritis on a person depends on which of their joints are affected, their loss of freedom of movement and the amount of pain they experience. In severe cases, osteoarthritis can be a substantial barrier to mobility and independence, compromising wellbeing and quality of life.

When it affects the knee or hip, osteoarthritis affects peoples’ mobility, limiting their walking, ability to climb stairs, their bathing and personal care, and driving. The new data show that close to 1 in 5 people in the UK aged 45 or over – around 4.7 million people – have sought care for knee osteoarthritis from their general practitioner, and 2.1 million people have sought care for osteoarthritis of the hip. For severe osteoarthritis, joint replacement can be very effective in reducing pain and restoring mobility; over 77,000 first-time knee replacements, and 66,000 first-time hip replacements, are carried out in England each year because of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis in the fingers and hands can prevent people being able to undertake everyday activities, such as writing, fastening buttons and opening food containers. The data revealed that over 1.5 million people in the UK, including more than half a million women of working age, have sought treatment from their GP for osteoarthritis of the hand or wrist.

Looking ahead
Between 1990 and 2010 the numbers of people disabled due to osteoarthritis in the UK increased by 16%. The trend is expected to continue, as osteoarthritis is more common in older people and those who are obese, and the number of people in these groups is rising. Estimates for knee osteoarthritis illustrate the scale of this future challenge. Given the expected increases in obesity, and the growth and ageing of the population, by 2035 as many as 8.3 million people in the UK could have knee osteoarthritis alone.

What can be done?
Many people struggle with osteoarthritis, thinking that nothing can be done to help. This isn’t the case. By taking a strategic approach to identifying people with, or at risk of, osteoarthritis and supporting them to manage the condition, much can be done to help people with osteoarthritis improve their quality of life.

The report sets out six recommendations to address the impact of osteoarthritis, including that NHS England and Public Health England should implement a coordinated programme of activity to address osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions as a public-health priority. The need for healthcare professionals to be alert to osteoarthritis in people with other conditions, to routinely ask people whether they're experiencing musculoskeletal pain, and to proactively consider and address its impact on overall health is emphasised. At a local level, health and wellbeing boards should assess and monitor the impact of osteoarthritis in their local population, and Joint Strategic Needs Assessments should state measures to promote physical exercise and tackle obesity.

The report is based on data collected in the Consultations in Primary Care Archive (CiPCA) and analysed by the Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre at Keele University.

Professor Alan Silman, Director of Policy and Health Promotion and Medical Director, Arthritis Research UK, said: “These new data make it clear just how many people are living with painful osteoarthritis across the UK. As our population ages, the impact of osteoarthritis on our society and health services will escalate. That’s why we're asking NHS England and Public Health England to implement a coordinated programme of activity to address osteoarthritis – and other musculoskeletal conditions – and to include this in their strategic priorities.”

Read the full Osteoarthritis in general practice report (PDF 4.21 MB).

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Arthritis Research UK receives no government funding and is the only charity in the UK dedicated to funding research into finding the cause, new treatments and cure for all forms of arthritis.

In National Arthritis Week, Arthritis Research UK is appealing to the public in order to continue funding its vital work. People can help making a Joint Effort pledge during the week, either by supporting the charity’s work by raising money, by sharing their experiences of arthritis in a National Arthritis Survey or by finding out more about the realities of living with arthritis.

Find out more about National Arthritis Week or make your Joint Effort pledge.

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[1] Murray C et al. (2013). UK health performance: findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, Lancet 381 (9871), 970–72.

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