Approximately 27 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, a sometimes-debilitating disease hallmarked by pain and stiffness in weight-bearing joints. We know that the wearing down of cushioning cartilage in our joints leads to arthritis, but how do you get arthritis in the first place? And is there anything you can do to stop it?
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, develops when cartilage between the joints degenerates. Without this natural cushioning, joints may become achy and stiff. If enough of the cartilage wears away, you can develop a bone-on-bone situation, which can be extremely painful. But how do you get arthritis? The medical community is not absolutely sure, but they are reasonably confident in the following risk factors:
1. Age. Experts believe that if we live long enough, we will all develop arthritis to some degree. The “wear and tear” of living can cause degeneration of cartilage in the joints. This is known as primary osteoarthritis.
2. A history of injuries. As you age, the injuries you have received throughout your life can contribute to the development of arthritis. An injured joint becomes vulnerable over time to cartilage degeneration.
3. Repetitive stress. If you type for a living, pound a hammer, swing a golf club, or subject any of your joints to similar repetitive strain, they can become more vulnerable to cartilage breakdown. (Note that this does not include exercise. Regular, light exercise may actually help stave off arthritis or lessen the pain once it develops.)
4. Obesity is one of the main causes of arthritis. With increasing weight comes increased pressure on the joints, which causes more wear. Some scientists speculate that the metabolic conditions set up in your body when you are very overweight or obese can create chemicals that attack cartilage between the joints.
5. Muscle imbalances can create more pressure on some joints than others. For example, if your right leg is weaker than your left, your left side has to work harder to compensate for the difference, and could become more vulnerable to cartilage wear. This has been studied mainly in knee cartilage.
6. Heredity may play a role in the development of arthritis. If you have a slight deformity of a joint or an inherited structural imbalance in your body, for example, a disparity in leg lengths, certain joints risk becoming arthritic.
7. Some diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes, may make the development of osteoarthritis more likely.
8. Gender. After age 50, more women then men are likely to develop osteoarthritis.
9. Systemic inflammation. Several studies, while controversial, speculate that systemic (body-wide) inflammation is involved in the development of osteoarthritis. Measured by the presence of C-reactive protein in the blood, systemic inflammation is present in individuals with osteoarthritis. Scientists are not clear whether the inflammation causes osteoarthritis or is a result.
How do you get arthritis? From all of the above conditions and more. While many of the factors that are thought to cause arthritis are out of your control, some aren’t. If you want to reduce your chances of developing osteoarthritis, keep your weight down, avoid injury by learning proper body mechanics and strengthening muscles, and make appropriate exercise a part of your life.
Arthritis Foundation, “Arthritis Disease and Related Conditions” http://www.arthritis.org/disease-center.php?disease_id=32&df=causes