Coming to terms with a deteriorating body for older women with osteoarthritis

hands-195648_1280Osteoarthritis is a chronic, painful condition marked by significant limitations in movement and daily functioning, which in turn has negative effects on psychological functioning. However, little is known about how individuals with this condition psychologically adjust to the disease over time. Dr Melissa Harris, Professor Julie Byles and Associate Professor Deborah Loxton from the University of Newcastle, and David Sibbritt from UTS investigated this issue.

The study interviewed women from the 1946-1951 cohort of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health about their experiences with osteoarthritis and the ways in which they adjust to the disease. The researchers found that the condition had a heavy physical and psychological impact on sufferers, with pain and loss of function being significant burdens. Most women accepted the disease to some extent, and had learnt to live with it. Women identified a range of factors that helped them to adjust to the disease. These included accepting pain and limitations, minimising symptoms (e.g. viewing them as “wear and tear”), comparing their circumstances to people who are worse off, and using the disease as an opportunity for personal growth. For example, having arthritis assisted some women in developing a greater awareness and appreciation for the struggle others face, as well as gaining an awareness of their bodies and having greater attunement to their physical limitations.

Some coping strategies, while perceived by the participants as beneficial for psychological adjustment, may present as barriers to help seeking and lead to poorer long-term physical outcomes, for example ignoring key arthritis-related symptoms and having ingrained beliefs about arthritis as a wear and tear disease, or behaving physically as they had done prior to having osteoarthritis.

Health service providers should be aware that women with osteoarthritis use cognitive strategies that can act as a catalyst for personal growth, but may be detrimental to their long-term physical health.

Citation: Harris ML, Byles JE, Sibbritt D, Loxton D, ‘”Just get on with it”: qualitative insights of coming to terms with a deteriorating body for older women with osteoarthritis.’, PLoS One, 10 e0120507 (2015)

Contact person: Melissa Harris