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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 01:30 GMT 02:30 UK
Pain burdens arthritis patients
Arthritic hands
Osteoarthritis is a disabling condition
Four out of five arthritis patients are living in constant pain - but almost half delay seeing their GP until it becomes unbearable, a survey shows.

Osteoarthritis is a major cause of physical disability in older people.

The survey, funded by a pharmaceutical company for the charity Arthritis Care, found around 70% of patients cannot manage routine household tasks.

The charity said a UK-wide strategy was needed to deal with the growing number of people with osteoarthritis.

A lot of people won't go to see their doctor until the pain becomes unbearable
Kieran Kettleton, Arthritis Care
It is urging people with osteoarthritis - a degenerative joint disease, which predominantly affects older people - not to suffer in silence.

Pfizer, the company which funded the survey, makes one of the drugs which can be used to treat osteoarthritis.

Arthritis Care's Kieran Kettleton said: "It would appear that a lot of people won't go to see their doctor until the pain becomes unbearable.

"It is a 'put up and shut up' attitude which prevails among this predominantly elderly group of osteoarthritis patients."

He is not blaming doctors or the health service directly, but feels neither is giving these patients the priority they deserve.

The charity is calling for a nationwide strategy which incorporates agreed standards of care for arthritis and inclusion of arthritis in the new GP contract, which came into force last week.

It has the backing of 30 MPs.

Mr Kettleton said: "It's a scandal to us that arthritis is not included in the new GP contract and is not going to be a priority for GPs.

"We have an ageing population and they are living longer and future generations will not 'put up and shut up'."

He is also urging patients to seek medical help for their pain at the earliest stage.

New drugs

The knock-on effect of this will be to push osteoarthritis higher up the primary care agenda and get it recognised as a disabling condition that cannot be disregarded, he believes.

The Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We recently announced that there will be specialist teams across the country, based in every strategic health authority, who will provide advice, care and treatment for people with chronic diseases like arthritis, often cutting out the need for visits to GPs and hospitals."

The department is also publishing a National Service Framework (NSF) for the care of elderly people later this year which is likely to include recommendations to improve standards of care for people with arthritis.

"The government has financially supported the development of the Arthritis Care self-management programme in this country and through our research programme and the Medical Research Council, is funding major research projects into arthritis," said the spokeswoman.

A spokeswoman for the Arthritis Research Campaign said that finding an effective treatment for osteoarthritis was a major challenge for researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

"The other major problem is a lack of knowledge of musculoskeletal conditions, including arthritis, among GPs, and the way these conditions are managed and treated by GPs varies enormously from practice to practice," added the spokesman.

"Many GPs are dismissive about arthritis,telling patients that there is nothing that can be done.

"We are trying to address this with a number of educational and training projects aimed at trainee GPs but the Department of Health needs to take a strong lead on this too."

The OA Nation survey of 1,762 osteoarthritis patients found that almost 50% would need to have frequently unbearable pain levels before presenting to a doctor.

Some respondents had symptoms of OA for more than 25 years, with an average of 12 years. the study found.

The BBC's Sophie Hutchinson
"Campaigners say the government is failing to tackle the problem adequately"

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