Can arthritis be prevented?

Jul 23,2013
By Steven Ballinger, MD

Arthritis is a painful, disabling condition that limits activity and decreases quality of life for millions of people. Most types of arthritis are at least partially genetic, and once arthritis appears it is often not curable. Medical science has developed many treatments to relieve the symptoms of arthritis, from medicines to surgical techniques.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be prevented from happening in the first place? It turns out that there are many things that a person can do to reduce the risk of developing arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own tissue. It has a strong genetic component but studies have shown that smoking cigarettes can double the chance of developing the disease. Women with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are at maximum risk, and the risk increases even if only a few cigarettes a day are smoked and lasts up to 15 years after quitting. Many people without a family history of rheumatoid arthritis develop the disease, so smoking can be considered a significant risk for the entire population.

Increasing the stress on joints has been shown to bring on osteoarthritis -- the “wear and tear” type -- and the most common form of joint abuse, at least in the hips, knees and ankles, is being significantly overweight. If a person is 40 pounds overweight, it is as if they are constantly wearing a full backpack – and that produces increased joint stress. There is plenty of evidence that heavy people do just as well with total joint surgery as those of average weight. But, heavy people are much more likely to need surgery in the first place, because being heavy makes their joints wear out faster. Obese individuals with low activity are at special risk, because being active has been shown to increase the thickness and durability of cartilage, which is the part of the joint that wears out. Thin cartilage is more easily damaged with everyday activity, leading to degeneration. Losing weight and staying active decrease the chances of developing osteoarthritis in the long run.

Proper diet is also important for joint health. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables and sources of zinc, vitamins C and D, and calcium all contribute to good joint health. Taking supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitan have not been shown to significantly influence the onset or course of arthritis unless there is a severe restriction of those nutrients or their components in the diet. Some recent studies have shown that frequent sun exposure can decrease the chance of developing arthritis in women, which may be related to vitamin D synthesis and improving the quality of the bone that supports the joint cartilage.

Combining an active lifestyle with a healthy diet and weight management, and avoiding smoking cigarettes will significantly reduce the chance of developing arthritis.

Steven Ballinger, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with Samaritan Mid-Valley Orthopedics in Albany and Samaritan Orthopedics in Lebanon. He can be reached at 541-812-5820 and 541-451-7540.

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