Tips to preventing arthritis at a young age
What can we do now to prevent arthritis later? Health experts chime in on what we can and cannot control where joint health is concerned.
"Arthritis is a breakdown of cartilage that can cause pain, swelling and dysfunction of a joint," explains Dr. Miho J. Tanaka, associate team physician for the St. Louis Cardinals and director of the Women's Sports Medicine Initiative at Regeneration Orthopedics.
"Many of us are genetically scheduled to get arthritis sometime in our lives," adds Dr. Barbara Bergin of Texas Orthopedics, Sports & Rehabilitation Associates. "And if you live a long time, your joints will eventually begin to wear out."
Fortunately, we do have some control over arthritis... today.
"Increased weight can put more stress on your joints," says Dr. Tanaka. So it's important to know your ideal weight and strive to maintain it.
If you're overweight, it's time to drop those extra pounds — and the sooner the better.
"Weight is one of the chief causes of early-onset arthritis," warns Dr. Bergin. "I'm seeing more and more 40-year-old patients with arthritis! It's devastating and very hopeless."
Dr. Bergin acknowledges the catch-22 with overweight patients who suffer from arthritis.
"The arthritis makes it hard to exercise, and it's hard to lose weight without exercising," she says.
But many doctors will turn away overweight arthritic patients until the extra pounds are lost, "so go ahead and do that now," advises Dr. Bergin.
What you eat is just as important as how much you eat, according to holistic nutritionist Katrina Starzhynskaya.
"Prevent or slow arthritis by eating plant-based anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding processed foods and all sugars — including high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and agave," she says.
Chiropractor Cody Scharf agrees.
"Without meeting the proper nutritional requirements, the body begins to break down muscles and bones to meet those requirements," Scharf says.
And without sufficient fruits, veggies and omega 3s, this deterioration can begin very early in life.
"Osteoarthritis is generally a disease of wear and tear," explains Dr. Tanaka. "The important thing in preventing arthritis and its symptoms is to minimize the stress that you are putting on your knees or hips while you are staying active."
Being physically active is good for your joints, as long as you do it right.
- Enjoy low-impact activities. "Elliptical trainers, swimming and biking are excellent ways to stay fit without the continual impact on your knees," says Dr. Tanaka.
- Maintain strength. "Maintaining the strength of the surrounding musculature of the legs and core can minimize the load that we place on our joints," explains Dr. Tanaka. "Our postural muscles naturally weaken as we get older, so it's important to focus on strengthening them to unload the knee joint."
- Improve flexibility. "Flexibility tends to get ignored," says Dr. Tanaka. "As we age, our body becomes more brittle and less pliable, and this affects our joints. Maintaining flexibility is important in preventing injury and knee pain."
- Avoid contact sports. "Contact sports like football, basketball and even cheerleading are terrible for your joints and can cause lifelong problems for your body," says Dr. Bergin. "When you injure a joint, you're going to develop arthritis in that joint," explains Dr. Bergin.
Telling a competitive athlete to stop doing what he or she loves isn't ideal, but it may prevent the onset of early arthritis.
"A lot of high-impact activity, like running, is going to wear out a knee faster than if you don't run," says Dr. Bergin, "especially if you're genetically predisposed to getting arthritis."
Consider walking, stretching and weight lifting as alternatives to contact sports.
"The human body does well with that," says Dr. Bergin.
Dr. Scharf encourages patients to be aware of the load and capacity of their daily physical activities.
"If you notice that your range of motion is starting to be limited, stiff or not what it used to be, chances are you're not moving properly," he says.
- At home: Use a foam roller and lacrosse ball on your muscles throughout the day to recover from and prepare for the daily load you place on them.
- At the gym: Consult a personal trainer to make sure your warm-ups and lifting techniques are as efficient as possible to limit the amount of load being placed on your body.
- At work: Make sure you use proper lifting techniques or take a brief break from repetitive movements. (Many jobs now have occupational therapists who can help with this.)
Dr. Scharf recommends finding a chiropractor or physical therapist who is certified in soft-tissue and movement techniques, such as Integrative Diagnosis, to make sure that all joints and structures are moving freely and properly.