Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, affecting millions of Americans¹ ages 45 and older. OA occurs when the cartilage and protective lining between the joints begin to wear down. It is a progressive condition; it worsens over time and has no cure.
With so many people affected by OA, it’s essential to understand what puts a person at risk of developing this condition and how to prevent it. While you can’t avoid all risk factors, you can easily adopt certain lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.
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There are several factors at play when it comes to developing osteoarthritis, and many of them are still being studied. While we are still learning about what causes OA, there are a few well-studied risk factors that may increase your chances of developing the disease.
Here are some of the most common ones.
Age plays a significant role in the development of osteoarthritis.
As we age, our bodies experience wear and tear. As a result, the amount of cartilage between our joints declines as we get older, which may lead to the development of OA.
Due to various reasons, women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis² than men. As women go through menopause, their hormone levels fluctuate, contributing to changes in their bones and joints.
In addition, musculoskeletal differences between men and women³, especially in the knees and hips, may play a part in developing OA.
Carrying extra weight⁴ on your body can put more stress on weight-bearing joints in the feet, knees, and hips. An increase in inflammation during obesity⁵ is also associated with developing OA.
Some people are born with abnormal bones or joints (e.g., those with spina bifida, congenital scoliosis). While this may not cause any difficulties early in their lives, it may put them at a greater risk of developing osteoarthritis as they age.
Plenty of evidence points to a person’s genetics as a driving factor behind developing OA. The chance of inheriting OA is between 40 and 70%⁶, depending on whether it’s OA of the knee or the hip, for example.
Previous joint injuries
A previous joint injury (e.g., joint dislocations, joint ligament tears, fractures) may increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis⁷.
Injuries to the knees, ankles, elbows, and shoulders, for example, may cause damage to the bones or the cartilage between the joints and lead to further damage later in life.
Low levels of physical activity
The activity levels of most people naturally decline as they age. However, joints that don’t get regular use may start to deteriorate⁸. Many of us sit behind our desks for hours at a time, which makes it tricky to find the time to get the right amount of exercise. As you age, it’s essential to stay active to prevent conditions like OA from developing.
While being physically inactive can harm your health and put you at risk of OA, overusing certain joints⁹ (like repetitive bending at the knee) can also put you at risk. If you work on your feet all day or participate in repetitive and strenuous activities, it can cause stress to your joints.
There are likely more risk factors that we will discover as scientists and doctors conduct more research. It means that even people with few or none of the above factors may still develop OA.
While you can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis by making healthy lifestyle choices, there are some factors that you just can’t change, like your genetic makeup. If your parents or grandparents were diagnosed with OA, you are more likely to get it¹⁰.
In addition, gender and ethnicity contribute to being diagnosed with OA. Women are more likely than men¹¹ to be diagnosed with osteoarthritis. They are also less likely to receive treatment, so being aware of symptoms (e.g., stiffness, joint pain) is especially important for early treatment.
Another study found that African-Americans are more likely to experience osteoarthritic pain¹² than Caucasian people.
It’s important to note that being a woman or having parents with OA doesn’t mean you will definitely develop the condition; other factors can play a role in the development of osteoarthritis. For example, certain ethnicities have higher rates of obesity, which could contribute to OA rather than ethnicity itself.
While several risk factors can’t be changed when it comes to osteoarthritis, it doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to your fate. You should reduce your risk when you can and seek treatment when you can’t. OA symptoms are treatable, and your aim should always be to improve your quality of life.
Even with some risk factors being impossible to control, there are some things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis. Here are some of them.
Staying active can help prevent osteoarthritis and improve its symptoms. Strength training¹³ using light resistance and weight lifting can improve joint strength. However, if you are already diagnosed with OA, talk to your doctor before beginning a new workout routine.
Gentle aerobic exercise¹⁴ helps keep you active, too. Activities like biking, swimming, and water aerobics put very little strain on joints and can go a long way in keeping you physically healthy.
Avoid strenuous activities
While research is inconclusive¹⁵, it’s thought that more strenuous activities like competitive marathon running¹⁶ can increase stress on your joints. So while staying active is essential, you should avoid repetitive or strenuous movements that may damage joints.
Enjoy a healthy diet
Eating right means including healthy fats, like omega-3, in your diet, and these fats can reduce inflammation. In some studies¹⁷, vitamin D has also been found to reduce your risk of developing OA.
If you can’t get the proper nutrition through your diet, supplements can help. Fish oil capsules containing healthy omega-3 and supplements like glucosamine¹⁸ have shown some promise in reducing joint problems.
However, the research on supplements is inconclusive. Talk to your doctor first before taking any, as they may interfere with your current medications.
Maintain a healthy weight
Losing even just a few pounds can reduce stress on your joints⁴, like your hips, knees, and ankles. Gentle exercise can strengthen joints and keep you mobile as you age, and it can also keep your weight in check.
Joint injuries can lead to osteoarthritis, so be sensible when you exercise. Start by warming up, end your workout by cooling down, and avoid pushing yourself past your limits, especially as you get older.
If you’re worried about your risk of developing OA, speak with a trusted medical professional, such as a physical therapist. They can help assess your risk and provide suggestions about what you can do to prevent osteoarthritis.
While OA is not curable, it is treatable. Osteoarthritis symptoms are highly personal, and not everyone diagnosed with it experiences intense pain or discomfort. While OA doesn’t always lead to disability, it’s still a good idea to reduce your risk and seek treatment as soon as symptoms arise.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that affects millions of older Americans. While you cannot wholly prevent developing OA, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk. Some risk factors, like gender, genes, and ethnicity, can’t be avoided, while others, like your lifestyle, can be modified.
Generally, maintaining a healthy diet and regular physical activity is the most straightforward way of preventing osteoarthritis. Examples include regularly doing gentle aerobic activities, following a strengthening exercise regimen, eating a balanced diet (e.g., sufficient healthy fats, vitamins, minerals), avoiding repetitive strenuous activity, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Consult your doctor as soon as you notice some of the early symptoms of osteoarthritis, like stiffness, joint pain, and swelling. They can recommend ways to stay healthy, avoid the risk of severe symptoms, and continue having a quality of life.
Arthritis | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Genetics of osteoarthritis (2015)
Osteoarthritis (OA) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention