Experts warn over rising cases of joint pain disease

by Amref Health Africa

Orthopaedic surgeons have sounded an alarm over the rising prevalence of arthritis in Kenya, with an estimated nine million people, about 18 per cent of the population, at risk of permanent disability.

Osteoarthritis (OA), a condition that a few years ago was associated with old age, is now affecting people below 30 years of age. Physiotherapists blame sedentary lifestyles in urban areas.

Jessica Shiraku, head of the physical medicine and rehabilitation centre at Nairobi Hospital, is emphatic that to reduce cases of the illness, Kenyans must adopt healthy diets and re-evaluate physical inactivity.

“Manage your weight, reduce intake of unhealthy foods such as sausages, and other fast foods to keep at bay conditions that arise from sedentary lifestyles,” Shiraku advised yesterday.

She was speaking at Kenyatta National Hospital’s School of Nursing to mark World Physiotherapy Day. Obesity, she pointed out, is not only a risk factor for OA but also for the progression of joint diseases.

Studies have shown that 24 per cent of surgical cases due to knee OA can be prevented if obese people reduce their weights by 5kg, or keep their body mass index (BMIs) in the recommended range. Also, maintaining an ideal weight not only reduces the onset of the disease but also alleviates the associated pain, reduces disability and improves the quality of life.

She advised Kenyans to avoid sitting for long hours and to be involved in physical activity. Osteoarthritis affects body joints, especially the knee.

In the past, it used to be a condition of aged people but nowadays even youth of 25 years are suffering from this condition. About 60 per cent of Kenyans above the age of 40 are at risk of disability, while between 5-to-10 per cent are also at risk.

And while it’s one of the most common chronic rheumatic disorders associated with morbidity and disability, physiotherapists are also cautioning against the intake of huge amounts of alcohol and tobacco.

“Although osteoarthritis affects people of all ages, the prevalence increases sharply from the age of 45. However, physiotherapists are finding it a challenge dealing with this condition when referrals take long,” she said. This year’s World Physiotherapy Day theme is Osteoarthritis and the role of physiotherapists in promotion, prevention and management.

Early treatment

To demonstrate why it should concern every Kenyan, especially those having challenges with their joints, Shiraku noted that these patients should visit physiotherapists early enough as the cost of treatment of the condition becomes huge in the future.

“Treatment of joint conditions is costly since most of those affected seek medical care late in life when the condition has already eaten into the bones,” she cautioned as other physiotherapists raised issues with the education status of healthcare workers on the condition.

Joan Kibet, a faculty member, at Amref International University noted that the need for physiotherapy education to meet the demand of people who require physiotherapy is huge. “The current number of physios does not meet the needs of the general population requiring attention to the condition,” she said, pointing out that in view of the needs of persons with long-term diseases like osteoarthritis there is a need for constant awareness.

The rising prevalence of osteoarthritis, according to Kibet, is attributed to changing lifestyles, for instance, urbanisation, as many people are becoming physically inactive. Osteoarthritis is also more common in females than males.

Rheumatic diseases are divided into autoimmune, autoinflammatory, degenerative and metabolic disorders.

However, few studies examined the spectrum of rheumatic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and the findings suggest the prevalence of OA in the knee, hip and hands accounted for 9.6 per cent.

“Several other studies which examined the spectrum of rheumatic diseases show higher prevalence figures for OA at 20 – 40 per cent,” said Terry Chelimo, a member of the Kenya Society of Physiotherapists (KSP). The prevalence is increasing as populations are ageing and epidemic obesity is on the rise. OA is estimated to be the fourth leading cause of disability in most countries worldwide, with 520 million people having the condition.

Globally, around 10 per cent of the population who are 60 years or older have symptomatic problems attributable to OA.

Knee, hip, hand and spine are typically the affected joints.

Article first published on

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