Arthritis Overview

Arthritis is a condition which causes painful and inflamed joints. It can affect all people, young and old. It is a chronic pain condition, defined as causing the person with the condition pain which lasts more than 12 weeks. More than 10 million adults in the UK may have some degree of arthritis.

What are the types of arthritis?

There are two common types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is more common, affecting people over the age of 50, women and those with a family history of osteoarthritis more. It can be brought on by an injury, or develop spontaneously, particularly in the:

  • Hands
  • Spine
  • Knees
  • Hips

Osteoarthritis affects the cartilage in a joint, thinning it and causing the tendons and ligaments to work harder to compensate. This causes painful movement of the joint, swelling and formation of small bony fragments called osteophytes at the joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects the outer covering of the joint and again, is more common in people over the age of 50, women and those with a family history of arthritis.

Over time, this type of arthritis can affect the whole joint as the immune system attacks it. Bone and cartilage can break down, altering the shape and appearance of the joint. 

Like with osteoarthritis, movement is painful and swelling at the joint present.

How is arthritis diagnosed and treated?

There is no one-size-fits all treatment for arthritis, but a combination of lifestyle changes – such as regular exercise, exercises in relaxation (meditation, yoga and mindfulness) and doing mood-boosting activities – alongside prescribed pain medication, can help alleviate symptoms.

Physiotherapy can also help, as the person will be given regular exercises to do which can help keep the affected areas mobile. This is better than adopting an approach of inactivity and rest, which can stiffen muscles and lead to bone weakness, in turn exacerbating pain.

Mental health also benefits from physical activity, including staying in work, which can help the person manage their arthritis through distraction and generally remaining happier.

It is important to take medication only as prescribed and maintain a dialogue with health professionals in order to reassess medication when required. Some pain medication typically prescribed for chronic pain like arthritis, such as the opioid codeine, can become addictive if not taken with correct medical guidance.

There are specific treatments for rheumatoid arthritis which aim to stop the condition spreading and minimises inflammation, which prevents long-term damage.

There are a few ways to determine whether an employee has arthritis, or to confirm arthritis which requires reasonable adjustments:

An employee may not disclose their arthritis upfront, but if they do, questions regarding the nature of an employee’s arthritis and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:

  • Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, avoiding certain types of manual tasks which might exacerbate their symptoms, or avoiding sitting at a desk which could cause stiffness.
  • Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs and empowering them, benefiting their mental health.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to disclose their arthritis – or they have not even received a precise diagnosis – an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.

What reasonable adjustments are possible with arthritis?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with arthritis if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has arthritis. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of arthritis:

  • Flexible working hours to accommodate medical appointments and periods of increased absence or decreased productivity following a flare-up in symptoms.
  • Additional breaks if the person’s pain medication causes their concentration to lapse or makes them drowsy shortly following taking it.
  • Help with travel to and from work such as the provision of mobility aids, etc.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next. This may also be dependent on when they take their medication if they are required to operate machinery, for example.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s arthritis and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work, for example, when taking additional breaks.
  • Ergonomic equipment to reduce pressure on the back, joints and other susceptible parts of the body while sitting at a desk.

Arthritis Signposting

National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society – a patient-led organisation working to improve the lives of people with Rheumatoid Arthritis by providing information about the condition, support and empowering people to make their voices heard on the subject (0800 298 7650).

Arthritis Action – charity helping people with arthritis manage their condition through lifestyle changes and self-management of the pain caused by the condition, as well as the mental impact. There is a focus on increased physical activity and better diet (020 3781 7120).

Versus Arthritis – charity campaigning for better policies to protect people with arthritis and to provide them with better healthcare, as well as campaigning to counter common misconceptions about the condition (0300 790 0400)

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