Once considered an “old person’s disease,” arthritis actually is a painful disorder that affects people of all ages. In the United States, two-thirds of the 50 million arthritis sufferers are under the age of 65, including 300,000 children.
In fact, arthritis is the nation’s leading cause of disability, and the number of sufferers will increase as more baby boomers feel pain in their joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
The pain index doesn’t have to increase, however, say experts who cite safer, more effective treatments and advances in the diagnosis and treatment of the potentially crippling disease.
Because osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a progressive condition, eliminating risk factors early in life can provide benefits later on. “What starts as a joint strain can progress into arthritis as cartilage gradually wears away,” says Dr. Mark Miller, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia Health System.
Here are some suggestions and information that might help keep joint problems at bay.
Diagnose earlier. Though there’s no known cure for arthritis, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are examining arthritic joints to determine specific genes and proteins in injured cartilage involved in onset of the disease.
“We’re developing biomarker panels that may allow us to predict which joints will be affected by arthritis and determine the severity of the disease before patients have symptoms. Then we can find better ways to reverse or at least markedly slow its progression,” says study author Dr. James Cook.
Supplement sunshine. Increased vitamin D levels, particularly for individuals living in northern latitudes or with dark skin, may help improve muscle strength and physical function in patients with knee osteoarthritis, according to Boston University researcher Dr. Kristin Baker.
Take birth control pills. Women taking birth control pills have tighter, more stable knee joints and more flexibility—an extra level of protection for any woman who exercises regularly. That’s especially good news since women are four to eight times more likely than men to sustain a serious knee injury. Such injuries that happen early in life often have a degenerative effect resulting in arthritis in the affected joint, Miller says.
Choose flexible footwear. Clogs and stability shoes increase the load on knees, while walking shoes and flip-flops allow a natural foot motion similar to walking barefoot, which is better for knees. Flat, flexible shoes provide the greatest benefit for limiting the progression of knee osteoarthritis.
Grow new cartilage. Cartilage does not regenerate in adults, but researchers at Northwestern University hope to change that with a new material that promotes the growth of new cartilage within the body. By injecting a liquid gel around the damaged joint, bone marrow stem cells are activated to produce natural cartilage. In separate research, scientists at Duke University have grown cartilage from stem cells culled from body fat and hope to test the procedure in humans within four years.