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Should healthy older people with joint pain consult their doctor?

Issue 31 Synovium (Autumn 2010)

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Now that is a challenging question, and here are some more: Is joint pain a normal feature of ageing? Is joint pain in older people related to ‘wear and tear’ and a normal consequence of increased longevity? Or is it due to a ‘disease’ called osteoarthritis? Do older people limit their activity to prevent further ‘wear and tear’? And finally what are GPs saying to their older patients about joint pain? Some of these interesting questions are explored in a qualitative study in the British Journal of General Practice.The study interviewed a small number (27) of patients aged 50–86 who considered themselves to be otherwise healthy, and asked about their experience of joint pain. In the introduction the authors questioned whether older people might normalise joint pain, limit their physical activity and not seek medical advice, thinking that a doctor had little to offer. With respect to the final point a study was quoted in which older people reported their doctors attributing joint pain to ‘growing old’ and advising them to ‘put up with it’! The findings of this new study are encouraging in that the interviewees did attribute their joint pain to wear and tear but did not limit their activity. In fact they voiced the opposite view – that stiff and painful joints should be kept mobile. They also suggested that new, sudden-onset and severe joint pain would be regarded as a quite different entity that was not a normal, age-related degenerative change and would be taken to the doctor. The authors advise that doctors should elicit and take into account patients’ perceptions of their joint pain when they consult.

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