If you don't suffer from osteoarthritis, take a moment to consider your good fortune. An estimated 54 million Americans suffer from arthritis or chronic joint symptoms -- and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that number will balloon to 78 million by 2040. You should also think about your future. Are you doing everything you can to protect your joints?
Osteoarthritis is the kind of arthritis you get from wear and tear on the joints -- and in many cases, it is preventable. Here's a look at the steps you can take to keep the disease out of your life.
Steps to prevention
- Watch your weight. Extra weight can strain the joints, especially the knees and hips. Over time, this strain can lead to arthritis. The good news is that even a small reduction in your waistline can lead to a big reduction in your risk. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that women who lost an average of 11 pounds over 10 years cut their risk of osteoarthritis in the knee by half.
- Avoid injuries. Don't wait until your golden years to start protecting your joints. No matter what your age, serious injuries to joints -- torn ligaments, torn cartilage, or broken bones -- can lead to arthritis somewhere down the road. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who injured their knees as teenagers and young adults were nearly three times more likely than those without injuries to have osteoarthritis by the time they reached 65.
- People who participate in intense sports like football, basketball, soccer, and gymnastics are especially vulnerable to joint injuries. But just about any type of exercise can be dangerous if you push yourself too hard. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine urges people to follow the 10 percent rule: If you want to boost your activity level (a noble goal), do it just 10 percent at a time. For example, if you normally jog one mile a day, try jogging 1.1 miles the next day, not four.
- Get the right gear. Whatever activity you choose to do, protect yourself from injuries by wearing the right equipment (including good shoes) and using proper form.
- Warm up before every workout. And remember, variety is a virtue. A fitness routine that combines several different kinds of exercises -- including aerobic activity and strength training -- will help keep your joints strong and flexible while reducing the risk of injury, especially from overuse.
Because knee injuries are often the source of arthritis, it's important to take care of your knees before and after exercise. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases advises that you always warm up before you exercise, and stretch the muscles in front of and behind your thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings) to reduce pressure on your knees. You can strengthen the muscles around your knees by walking up stairs or hills or riding a stationary bicycle.
Pay attention to your footwear as well. To help maintain your balance and leg alignment while exercising, it's best to buy shoes that fit. Knee problems can be aggravated by feet that overpronate (roll inward), but this common problem can be corrected with shoe inserts from a podiatrist. These inserts are called orthotics, and are custom-molded to your foot.
Finally, if you do sustain a knee injury that refuses to heal, see a doctor. Left untreated, a knee that's unstable from injury can lead to arthritis later in life.
Stay safe on the job
Jobs that require repetitive motions such as squatting, kneeling, or heavy lifting can greatly increase your risk of arthritis. According to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, joint strain on the job accounts for 30 percent of knee osteoarthritis in men. If possible, avoid work that over-taxes your joints. If you're in a job such as carpet-installing, which requires a lot of kneeling, use a knee pad. At the very least, try to find a way to vary your movements throughout the day.
Get proper treatment
If you do injure a joint, don't ignore the pain. Minor sprains and strains can usually be treated with a little RICE -- rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If a joint doesn't heal on its own, though, it's a good idea to consult a physician. A knee that remains weak and unstable can lead to arthritis years down the road. If you have suffered a torn ligament or another serious injury, you may require a temporary knee brace, treatment, or even surgery.
Surgery isn't the final answer, however. In fact, the hard work is still to come. Slowly but surely, you'll need to keep moving the joint until it's strong and stable enough to withstand your favorite activities. If you rest the joint too much, the cartilage will scar too quickly, you could easily re-injure the joint. Your doctor or physical therapist can recommend specific exercises to help speed your recovery. He or she may also suggest wearing a brace or other protective equipment to reduce your risk of further injury.
Pay attention to diet
Eat a balanced diet. Like any other part of your body, joint tissue needs proper nutrition. As reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, two nutrients stand out for their possible ability to protect the joints: vitamin C and vitamin D. Vitamin C helps prevent cartilage damage and vitamin D protects bones. Studies suggest that a healthy supply of vitamin C may reduce the risk of osteoarthritis by three-fold. Vitamin D may have the ability slow the progression of the disease or help keep it from starting in the first place. If your daily diet is lacking in these nutrients, ask your doctor if supplements are right for you.
Arthritis. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gelber AC et al. Joint injury in young adults and risk for subsequent knee and hip osteoarthritis. Annals of Internal Medicine 133(5): 321-328.
Felson DT et al. Weight loss reduces the risk for symptomatic knee osteoarthritis in women. The Framingham Study. Annals of Internal Medicine 116: 535-539.
American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Baby boomer sports injury prevention tips.
Centers for Disease Control. Targeting Arthritis: Improving Quality of Life for More Than 450 Million Americans.