Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in Canada, putting serious strain on public health care and the economy, according to a new report.

Thursday's report by the Arthritis Alliance of Canada estimated that osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis costs the Canadian economy $33 billion last year in direct health-care costs and indirect costs such as lost productivity. 

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Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common inflammatory joint disease. (iStock)

The report's authors said currently more than 4.4 million Canadians live with osteoarthritis, a progressive joint disease that occurs when damaged joint tissues are unable to normally repair themselves, resulting in a breakdown of cartilage and bone.

More than 272,000 people are living with rheumatoid arthritis, the most common inflammatory joint disease.

"Too many people dismiss arthritis as an old person's disease," said Dr. Dianne Mosher, a rheumatologist in Calgary who heads the group and was one of the lead authors on the report.

"Canadians need to understand that these diseases are painful and debilitating. They can affect anyone, at any age."

People with arthritis can have trouble walking and standing, and chronic pain can disturb sleep and lead to fatigue and depression, Mosher said.

In 30 years, the more than 10 million or one in four Canadians is expected to have osteoarthritis.

The report's authors propose four potential steps to mitigate the burden of the disease and manage its impact on the healthcare system and economy:

  • Increasing access to total joint replacement.
  • Decreasing obesity rates by 50 per cent since obesity is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis.
  • Developing adequate pain management strategies for hip and knee osteoarthritis.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with medications.

The group is seeking greater awareness about arthritis.

Silent pain of arthritis

"In our specialty, our patients don't die," said Dr. Claire Bombardier, director of the rheumatology division at the University of Toronto.

"Our patients live in pain and often in silent pain, invisible pain, and it becomes obvious when they break down. They have to stop working or their husbands leave them. There are all sorts of impacts on life: people have to move house [because] they aren't able to go up and down stairs, they're not able to go to the toilet, they need other people to help them."

The Arthritis Alliance, which released its report at a scientific conference in Quebec City, is calling on government policy-makers, the corporate sector and the insurance industry to join with advocacy groups in creating a national strategy to reduce the burden of arthritis on Canadians.

At the conference, delegates will spend two days discussing the report and topics including the future of the arthritis community, inflammation in chronic disease, the patient experience, rarer forms of arthritis and personalized medicine.

With files from The Canadian Press