If Your Joints Hurt, You Have Lots of Company!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three people over 65 years of age has osteoarthritis (OA). The CDC says that more than 52 million adults have “doctor-diagnosed arthritis.” This may greatly underestimate the total number of people affected, though. It has been estimated that over 20 million Americans suffer symptoms but have never been officially “diagnosed” by a doctor.

Aging baby boomers are discovering that they are not indestructible or immune to painful joints. Like their parents and grandparents before them, they too are developing aching ankles, knees, hips and backs. Arthritis could make retirement a lot less enjoyable for boomers who were planning on an active lifestyle once they hit 65. It’s hard to jog, hike, play tennis or swing a golf club if stuff hurts.

Joint replacement surgery has become a growth industry in the United States. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, nearly 5 million Americans now have artificial knees and another 2.5 million have artificial hips. Between 2000 and 2010 hip replacements doubled. Interestingly, such surgery went up 205% in people between 45 and 54 years of age, suggesting that this is not purely a disease of senior citizens.

The Great OA Mystery:

What causes osteoarthritis? The conventional wisdom was that OA was an almost inevitable complication of accumulating birthdays. Daily wear-and-tear over 70 or 80 years was supposed to take a toll on joints by causing inflammation and degeneration.

There are some problems with that theory, however. For one thing, many people seem immune to joint pain even into their nineties. Others develop achy ankles, nasty knees and stiff backs before they hit 50.

If wear and tear were the culprits, then desk jockeys who spend hours a day sitting should be less likely to experience OA. Au contraire. A sedentary lifestyle may actually increase the risk for joint problems. The Arthritis Foundation points out that physical activity may be “one of the best ways to keep joints healthy in the first place.”

If OA is brought on by wear and tear then very long-distance runners should experience problems with ankles, knees and hips at a relatively early age. The data are surprisingly unconvincing. Although elite football and soccer players may indeed be at increased risk for OA, long-distance runners may not be. Many analyses show no association between osteoarthritis and running (British Journal of Sports Medicine, Sept. 28, 2016). One study even suggests that runners have less inflammation in their knees rather than more (European Journal of Applied Physiology, Dec. 2016).

We suspect that traumatic injuries to joints, like those experienced repeatedly by football players, do cause chronic inflammation and ultimately joint deterioration. Walking or even running do not appear to be injurious to joints. Staying fit and keeping weight under control are essential for good health and may also benefit joints.

As far as we can tell, researchers have not uncovered a clear cause of osteoarthritis. And they sure as heck have not come up with a cure. There are no magic medications that reverse joint deterioration and eliminate pain permanently.

Are You At Risk?

If you are lucky enough to reach 85 years of age you will have a 50% chance of developing symptoms of knee arthritis. Overweight? Your likelihood of having sore knees goes up to 66%.

Even if you are slim and middle aged does not mean you are immune from joint pain. Over 30% of those between 45 and 64 have been diagnosed with arthritis.

Did grandpa, mom or Uncle Charlie complain about stiff joints, sore knuckles or achy knees? If so, your genes are working against you. The data suggest that people with a family history of OA have a 50% greater risk of also experiencing symptoms as they age.

Did you play rough contact sports as a kid? Repeated joint injuries or accidents can increase the likelihood that problems will develop later in life.

Reduce Your Risks:

Since we don’t know the causes of OA, we can only guess at minimizing risks. You can’t choose your parents, so you can’t escape your genes. You can, however, influence how they behave. We call that gene expression. Anything you can do to minimize inflammation and reduce wear and tear will be beneficial. So, here are our unscientific recommendations:

Keep weight under control. Exercise but avoid traumatic injuries. Swimming, walking, biking, tai chi, yoga, and reasonable running are all worth considering. Eat real food. Avoid processed food as much as possible. Stick with non-inflammatory fatty acids such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, almond oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and macadamia oil. Add anti-inflammatory spices to your food such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin seeds, garlic, black pepper and cayenne.

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Published on: January 17th, 2019 | Last Updated: February 25th, 2021
Publisher: The People's Pharmacy

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