Is your knee starting to ache after going for a run? Are your joints stiff when you wake up in the morning? Do you hear cracking in your legs when you get up after sitting for a while? If so, you may be seeing early signs of arthritis.
You might think of arthritis as something your grandparents get. And, yes, arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, usually worsens with age, as the cartilage in your joints starts to deteriorate. Taking steps to protect your joints well before old age can lessen the effects of osteoarthritis, and as millennials are reaching their 40s, now is the time to start thinking about ways to slow the progression of the condition.
About 15% of all adults over 60 have osteoarthritis, and women are twice as likely as men develop it, according to the Arthritis Foundation. But, symptoms can begin decades earlier.
“It is never too early to get into the habit of protecting your joints,” says Brittany Ferri, an occupational therapist in Rochester, New York, who specializes in conditions like arthritis. “Many of us often don’t realize that some of the things we do on a daily basis—like overdoing small and repetitive tasks like texting—have a negative impact on our joint health.”
Not everyone develops arthritis, but there’s no cure if you do. It can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes, like exercise. Experts say learning to take care of your joints can reduce your risk, delay the start of arthritis and minimize symptoms, like pain and immobility.
What is osteoarthritis?
Arthritis is an umbrella term for “inflammation of the joint,” says Alice Holland, a doctor of physical therapy at Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon.
There are hundreds of types of arthritis, but the most common is osteoarthritis, also known as “wear and tear arthritis.”
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage, which provides cushioning between bones, breaks down, creating inflammation, causing pain and swelling and making movement difficult, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Any joint can develop osteoarthritis, but it’s most common in the knees, hips, hands, lower back and neck. The risk increases with age, since bones, muscles and joints also get older, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Genetics, joint injury, obesity, overuse and weak muscles also increase the likelihood of developing arthritis.
“Everything that our body goes through, like injuries or poor posture, stays with us for years to come and can cause arthritis in individuals who are already predisposed to the condition,” Ferri says.
How to keep your joints healthy
“Motion is lotion” is a common saying in the physical therapy world, Holland says.
“It’s like if you’re the rusty Tin Man (from The Wizard of Oz), you need to get some oil, and you need to move,” she says. “Arthritis is correlated with sedentary habits and weakness.”
Exercise lubricates the joints, making them more flexible, Ferri says. Joints are encased in the synovial membrane, a soft tissue that releases a fluid to allow bones to move smoothly. Exercise circulates the fluid, and also improves circulation in your joints, moves oxygen and nutrients into the joints, builds muscle and removes cellular waste from the joint.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, and to generally “move more and sit less throughout the day.”
To guard against osteoarthritis, the Arthritis Foundation suggests varying your exercise routines to include strengthening exercises to build muscle, range-of-motion moves to reduce stiffness, cardio to boost energy level and balance exercises to strengthen the tiny muscles around the joint.
“Our balance comes from our eyes, an organ in the inner ear and information from our muscles and joints,” explains Cleveland Clinic physical therapist Mary Morrison, PT, DScPT.
Many falls happen when people rotate their body while reaching up or down (for example, turning and reaching overhead to put something in the kitchen cabinet).
Your body must be able to react to save you from falling. “When we work on balance in physical therapy we take people to the edge of falling and allow their body to learn to respond,” Morrison says.HEALTHY NOW TIP
If you’re ready to get moving, ease into a new exercise routine and check with your doctor or physical therapist first, especially if you’re mostly sedentary, Holland says. Health care professionals can teach you proper from so you don’t injure yourself.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight puts extra pressure on the body’s major joints, including the hips, knees and back, Ferri says. The added strain erodes cartilage in the joints.
Excess fat cells, or adipose tissue, release the pro-inflammatory proteins cytokines, which can destroy joint tissue and change how cartilage cells function.
“Being sedentary and overweight are two major factors that influence arthritis,” Holland says. “It goes without saying that the more weight you have to carry, the more load you’re putting on your spine, knees and feet.”
Managing your weight lowers your risk for osteoarthritis. Research shows that each pound of weight lost decreases the pressure put on knees by four times.
Break bad habits now
You probably spend a good part of your day texting, scrolling through social media and typing on your laptop. The repetitive movements of the tasks can stress the joints, which could lead to osteoarthritis, Ferri says.
“When you can’t avoid these tasks, take plenty of breaks and stretch your whole body,” she says.
Sitting or standing for too long, or continuously lifting heavy objects stresses the joints, as well.
“Eventually, your joints will wear because you are not moving,” Holland says. “You’re not varying up the loads in your joints. If you’re sitting for eight hours a day staring at your laptop with a bent over, stooped posture, you’re going to feel it in your neck, you’re going to feel it in your low back, and you’re going to feel it in your hips.”
Follow a healthy lifestyle
An overall healthy lifestyle lowers your osteoarthritis risk, so break bad habits like not getting enough sleep, drinking too much, smoking and eating unhealthy foods. Look for ways to relax and avoid stress.
Practicing joint self-care now could help prevent osteoarthritis later. Give yourself hand massages or see a massage therapist regularly, and get in the habit of icing and applying heat to sore or achy muscles, Ferri suggests.
“Listen to your body,” she says. “If any activity causes pain or discomfort, stop.”