Is Arthritis Unavoidable As We Age?

HYANNIS –Ever had the feeling you can predict changes in the weather just by the pain in your joints? You’re not alone.

That’s a phenomenon associated with osteoarthritis, the most common of the more than 100 types of arthritis, according to Michelle Costa, DO, a rheumatologist with Cape Cod Rheumatology Center in Falmouth.

“So many people can relate to arthritis because the disease is very common,” she said. “If you have pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints, bring it up with your primary care physician. They manage most arthritis patients and can tell you about your options, which might include referring you to a rheumatologist, orthopedist or neurologist.”

More of us are suffering from arthritis than once thought, according to new research from Boston University. A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology revealed an estimated 91 million U.S. adults have arthritis, and one-third of sufferers are between 18 and 64 years old. Those estimates are 68 percent higher than previously reported, according to the researchers.

“By far, most of us will be dealing with osteoarthritis,” said Dr. Costa. “You may hear a lot about rheumatoid arthritis because it can be so debilitating, but rheumatoid arthritis only affects about 1 percent of the world’s population. Lupus effects even less. Osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear arthritis that is responsible for most of the aches and pains we have as we age. Osteoarthritis is also responsible for most knee and hip replacements as well as spinal stenosis.”

Most of us will start getting osteoarthritis in our late 40s or early 50s, and the disease gets worse with age, she explained.

“An example we can all relate to is friends who say they have arthritis in their shoulders from pitching baseballs when they were kids. I broke my collar bone while bicycling when I was 22, and that caused post-traumatic osteoarthritis in my shoulder,” she said.

Osteoarthritis does not always follow a predictable path, according to Dr. Costa.

Treatment and Prevention

“We can X-ray 100 people over age 40, and 70 percent will have X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis, but only half of them will have symptoms. X-ray evidence does not correlate to pain. There is no cure or drug that slows its progression, but osteoarthritis rarely disables people or shortens lives; it is just painful.”

Arthritis is a move it or lose it disease, Dr. Costa said. People who are inactive suffer more from arthritis than people who exercise regularly.

According to Dr. Costa, the best ways to prevent osteoarthritis or deal with its effects are:

Maintain a healthy weight
Exercise at least 150 minutes a week
“Basically, follow the same recommendations for good heart health. We say, ‘If it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the joints,’” she said.

Swimming is the best exercise for osteoarthritis, but most people don’t have easy access to swimming pools. Aerobic exercise like walking is essential and muscle strengthening exercises like weight training and resistance training are also good for osteoarthritis, according to Dr. Costa.

“With osteoarthritis, you’ll have good days and bad days, so take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like Advil or Aleve only when necessary,” Dr. Costa said. “Cortisone injections are another option for some patients who experience pain relief for several months after getting the shots in one or two joints. Because exercise is so important to arthritis management, physical therapists are incredibly important to many sufferers. They do a wonderful job helping patients who have arthritis of any kind.”

The question patients ask her most often is ‘What can I do to keep this from getting worse?, and she is quick to advise losing weight.

“Obesity makes arthritis worse. Control your weight and keep exercising,” she said.

By BETH ANN LOBARDI, Cape Cod Health News

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