Arthritis pain and stiffness set in when the cartilage — the rubbery cushion in the joints that absorbs shock for the bones and allows them to glide smoothly when we move — wears away. When there isn’t enough cartilage left in the joint to protect the bones from damaging each other, we feel it. And while over 46 million Americans are living with arthritis, about 61 percent of them, or 28 million, are women.
Why are women more commonly affected by arthritis? One reason may be the physical differences between the sexes — for example, women have less knee cartilage than men. It’s no wonder that according to a recent report, knee replacement surgeries more than tripled in women between ages 45 and 64 over the past decade. Women are also at greater risk for the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis than men, which experts think may be due to hormonal differences, among other factors. Finally, women may also experience a greater emotional burden from arthritis than men. A 2011 survey conducted by the supplement manufacturer Flexicin International found that 78 percent of women with arthritis feel that they receive very little support from family and friends, compared with 66 percent of men.
Fight Back Against Arthritis
So what can you do? The good news is that there are risk factors for osteoarthritis that women can target for arthritis prevention. Start with these important steps.
- Maintain a good body weight. Excess body weight is one of the best-known and most important risk factors for arthritis. The more pressure you put on your joints, the faster they wear out. “Every extra pound of weight you have on is 4 pounds of pressure on the weight-bearing joints, like your knees and hips,” explains Scott Zashin, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “Losing weight is one thing patients can do that really makes a difference [in arthritis pain].” As the pounds drop, you reduce stress on your joints by lowering their workload. Change up your diet by adding in fiber each day and eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting refined carbohydrates and fat. Remember, small changes are always easier to maintain than big ones. So focus on baby steps at first for lasting prevention of arthritis pain.
- Trade in your high heels. The human foot was not designed to be on its toes all day long, a fact that escapes fashion designers and shoe shoppers. And for some people, high heels will cause trouble. “It’s OK to wear them occasionally, but if used all the time, they can cause a lot of problems,” Zashin says. If you can switch to a more joint-friendly style most of the time, your body will thank you.
- Do non-impact exercises. According to Dr. Zashin, some activities may predispose you to osteoarthritis and arthritis pain. High-impact exercise like long-distance running and soccer put a lot of stress on the joints and can wear down the cartilage faster than normal — in essence, worsening your arthritis, he says. You may want to turn in your running sneakers for a swimsuit or biking shorts: Zashin recommends biking or water exercises for those looking to stay active and practice arthritis prevention.
- Use better body mechanics. When performing physical tasks, like lifting objects, how you hold your body (and any weight you’re carrying) matters. “People with bad body mechanics may be predisposed to develop arthritis,” says Zashin. Good body mechanics, like lifting with your legs instead of your back, take much of the stress off the joints, he explains. This helps with arthritis prevention by preserving cartilage. Another of Zashin’s recommendations is to carry your purse or other bags on your forearm rather than gripping the straps with your hands. Another way to approach this, he says, is to get help. Have someone carry the bags for you and give your joints a rest to avoid arthritis pain.
- Avoid injuries. While no one wants to be sidelined by an injury, taking preventive steps helps safeguard your health today and may serve as arthritis prevention in the future. “Avoiding injury will decrease the risk of developing arthritis later in life,” says Zashin, who points out the connection between injuries andosteoarthritis in football players who develop arthritis pain years after retiring. Though most women aren’t playing football, other injury types can cause problems. In general, Zashin says, “if you’re doing exercise that’s increasing your pain the next day, that’s probably not the right exercise for you.” Focus on sports and exercises that will be challenging but safe, and know your body’s limits. Be sure to start any new exercise program gradually — overdoing it early on is a surefire way to get hurt. Last, check in with your health care provider to get cleared before beginning any new workout regimen, and ask about any special precautions you should be taking.
- Check your vitamin D. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 60 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, and women, especially African-American women and those of menopausal age, are especially likely to be lacking adequate levels. Asking your doctor to check your vitamin D levels is a smart move for arthritis prevention. “Patients who have adequate levels of vitamin D have less progression of osteoarthritis,” Zashlin says. The exact mechanism is not known because of limited research. About taking vitamin D supplements, he says that “the benefits probably outweigh the risks, as long as you don’t take too much.” But if you’re taking vitamin D, Zashin recommends having your blood levels monitored by your doctor because too much can be dangerous.
- Stay hydrated. Another reason to drink more water: arthritis prevention. The cartilage in our joints is made up mostly of water, which is what makes it such a great cushion for the joints. When we’re dehydrated, water gets sucked out of the cartilage and it’s more easily damaged by wear and tear. This can be seen in people with osteoarthritis of the spine or degenerative disk disease, says Zashin. “When the cartilage discs in the spine lose moisture or water and get dried out, that increases pain,” he says. Keep your cartilage healthy by drinking water throughout the day. A daily 6 to 8 cups now may pay off in the years to come