Arthritis — a generic term for joint pain or disease — affects more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States, including nearly half of all Americans ages 65 and older.
There are more than 100 kinds of arthritis, which can affect men and women of all ages and ethnicities.
Osteoarthritis — the most common form — occurs when the protective cartilage at the ends of your bones (often in the hands, knees, hip or spine) wears down. It’s a degenerative condition, meaning it gets worse over time, causing pain and lowering your quality of life. Currently, there is no cure.
Osteoarthritis is more prevalent in women than in men. Though it occurs more frequently as people get older, it’s important to note that two-thirds of those who suffer are under the age of 65, says Marcy O’Koon Moss, Senior Director, Consumer Health, at the Arthritis Foundation. “One myth to dispel is that everyone who is old has arthritis,” she says.
Being overweight can also exacerbate the condition, in which bones rub against each other, causing pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. Some types of arthritis can also affect the heart, lungs, eyes, kidneys and skin.
While symptoms can be mild at first and may come and go, they will likely grow worse as you age. Nearly half of all Americans develop painful, symptomatic osteoarthritis in their knees — and one in four in their hips — by the age of 85, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers don’t fully understand what causes arthritis, though they do know that the factors that place people at high risk include genetics, sports-related and other joint injuries, repetitive motion and excess weight. But you can lower your risk or delay the onset of some types of arthritis. Maintaining a healthy weight is the best thing to do to prevent osteoarthritis. Not smoking will help to prevent rheumatoid arthritis. And having a healthful, low-sugar, low-alcohol, low-fat dairy diet rich in vitamin C can help to prevent gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis that can be extremely painful.
Gout occurs when too much uric acid builds up in the bloodstream, depositing needle-shaped crystals in the joints. Eating high-purine foods such as meat and seafood and drinking beer increase the risk for gout. To ease the pain of gout attacks, the Arthritis Foundation recommends taking anti-inflammatory medication, elevating and icing the joint, drinking plenty of fluids (with the exception of sweet drinks) and relaxing, as stress can aggravate the condition.
When symptoms are not severe, osteoarthritis can be managed or treated with regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight to reduce the pressure on joints (even a ten-percent reduction in body weight can help), taking over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines, strengthening the muscles around the joints for added support, using hot and cold therapies and avoiding repetitive motions.
“Exercise will strengthen the muscles around the joints to give them better support,” Moss says. “You should strengthen your quads and hamstrings and do exercises to increase range of motion so you don’t get stiff. Walking is an excellent exercise for people with arthritis.”
Exercise can also help with weight loss. “Every extra pound puts three to four pounds of pressure on your knees,” says Moss.
Moss suggests starting out slowly and gradually increasing exercise as tolerance increases. Exercises can also be modified or adapted to suit individual comfort and pain levels, she says. The Arthritis Foundation offers a tool called Your Exercise Solution (the “YES” tool), www.arthritis.org/YEStool, that allows users to input information about their health and fitness levels to identify appropriate ways to modify exercises to suit individual abilities.
Most people should be able to exercise normally, with minor adaptations and using common sense, says Moss. But if exercise feels too painful or you’re uncertain about what’s appropriate, a member of your healthcare team — such as a physical therapist — can provide additional guidance, she says.“
The point is, everybody can exercise in some way,” she says, “and the more you do, the better.”
If your symptoms are severe, it’s also important to remember to incorporate periods of rest into your routine, says Moss. “Don’t try to go, go, go all day long. Just do what you can.”