A growing number of middle-age Americans are suffering from an assortment of aches and pains, but most have no idea they could be warning signs of this potentially crippling disease.
A recent survey by the Arthritis Foundation found that 67 percent of respondents were at risk for arthritis, but 52 percent didn't know it. And more than half (51 percent) said they had no plans to see their doctor about the health of their joints.
What's more, 53 percent were showing some symptoms of arthritis, yet many weren't aware of the significance.
"With each decade there is an increasing prevalence of osteoarthritis, and we expect as our U.S. population ages, osteoarthritis will become a major medical diagnosis to manage," says Dr. Elaine Tozman, associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Arthritis is actually an umbrella term that refers to more than 100 different conditions, ranging from lupus to carpal tunnel syndrome. About 43 million Americans suffer from some form of arthritis, making it the nation's leading cause of disability.
As the population ages, the Arthritis Foundation estimates that arthritis will affect 1-in-5 Americans, or almost 60 million people, by 2020.
And osteoarthritis, an often painful condition in which the cushioning cartilage between bones wears away, is by far the most common form, accounting for about 30 million cases of the disease, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Typically, people start to develop osteoarthritis in their late 40s. By the time they're in their 80s, the vast majority of individuals suffer from the disease.
Not all people are equally affected by the disease -- some barely know they have it, while others are severely incapacitated. Yet, everyone can benefit from prevention and treatment methods.
To help prevent osteoarthritis, the Arthritis Foundation offers these suggestions:
- Lose weight. Every extra pound you gain puts four times the stress on your knees. A loss of 11 pounds may cut your risk of osteoarthritis of the knee by as much as 50 percent.
- Build stronger bones by increasing your calcium intake. Not only can this lower your risk of osteoarthritis, but also osteoporosis. In addition to milk, try incorporating yogurt, broccoli, kale, figs, salmon and calcium supplements into your diet.
- Bulk up with strength training. Lifting weights creates denser bones and builds stronger muscles that help stabilize and protect joints.
- Ease into an exercise program. "Don't expect to become Jane Fonda overnight. And the athletic pursuits can actually cause trauma and sometimes injury to the joint," Tozman says. "Particularly for the baby boomer population, a supervised program would be ideal to try and prevent excess injury, damage or stresses on joints, which can contribute to arthritis."
As with all serious medical conditions, early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to combat osteoarthritis.
If you notice a pain in your knee, hip, lower back, neck or the small joints at the ends of the fingers that lasts for more than a week in any given month, see your physician.
"It's really important to see a doctor early on to distinguish osteoarthritis from some other form of arthritis, because the treatment is different," says Dr. John Klippel, medical director of the Arthritis Foundation.
"The second thing is you want to start a program before there's actually damage to the joint. Over time in many forms of arthritis, there is loss of cartilage or there's damage in the bone. And for all practical purposes, that's irreversible once it happens. What you want to do is begin a plan of treatment," Klippel says, adding that treatments vary depending on the individual.
You should also talk to your physician about medications, Tozman advises.
Both analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, Motrin) can help combat pain and ease movement. Prescription anti-inflammatory drugs such as Vioxx and Celebrex are also widely used.
Other medications like injections of corticosteroids into the joints may help some patients. And hyaluronic acid injections may stave off the need for knee replacement surgery, Tozman says.
Medications can also make it easier to be active, which is key in any arthritis treatment program.
Some other suggestions to help keep osteoarthritis from limiting your life:
- Play in a pool. Water therapy can help maintain muscle strength and range of motion, as can physical or occupational therapy.
- Talk to your doctor about nutritional supplements. The most promising appear to be glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate. "There's good reason to suspect that dietary supplements like glucosamine or chondroitin not only relieve symptoms but may actually protect against damage," Klippel says. "I don't know that that's been definitely proven to everyone's satisfaction, but there are enough studies to suspect that that's correct."
- Surgery is a last resort. Yet for people with major disabilities or limitations, joint surgery is a "godsend," Klippel says.
What To Do
The Arthritis Foundation has a free booklet, "51 Ways To Be Good To Your Joints," which includes a joint-health quiz. To get a copy, visit the Arthritis Foundation.
To take the joint-health quiz, click here.
For more information on exercise for older adults, visit the Senior Health site at the National Institutes of Health.