Ask anyone what they think causes osteoarthritis. Chances are they will say something to the effect of, it’s simply a result of aging or it’s just a sign of your bones getting weaker because of poor diet. Now, it’s not that those answers are wrong, but they are not entirely right. In fact, a new study is shining light on our current understanding of osteoarthritis and may even prove us wrong.
The Commonly Believed Causes of Osteoarthritis
As the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis affects millions of people worldwide, ~27 million of whom are Americans. While this degenerative joint disease can affect any joint, people experience it most commonly in their fingers, toes, knees, hips, lower back, and neck.[1,2]
Ideally, you would like to have your bones and joints supported with cartilage, a firm cushion that protects your bones and allows your joints to bend smoothly. But in the case of osteoarthritis, the firm cartilage cushion begins to break down. Slowly, bone growths known as spurs can begin to grow and pieces of cartilage or bone can chip off. As the cartilage and bone damage worsens, so does joint inflammation because there is more and more bone on bone contact.[2,3]
Trying to pinpoint the exact cause of inflammation is challenging because it tends to happen gradually, over the course of decades. However, the most common causes may include:
Carrying excess weight, obesity
Joints that never properly formed
Genetic defects in bone cartilage
Stress from sports or certain jobs that require repetitive movements
Osteoarthritis has Doubled in Prevalence Since the Mid-20th Century
In July 2017, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Dr. Ian Wallace (and his team), published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Over the course of Dr. Wallace’s research, he and his team “studied over 2000 skeletons from three different time periods.”[4,5]
Researchers looked at skeletons (specifically their knees) from the early industrial to post-industrial era up to the early 2000s, including 176 prehistoric ones. With all this information, Dr. Wallace concluded that knee osteoarthritis is twice as common than it was in the mid-1900s. However, they don’t believe this surge is simply due to people living longer and being more overweight.
Even when researchers factored in the fact that life expectancy is longer and obesity is more common, they found that a rise in arthritis would still occur. This led them to beg the question: are factors such as living longer and obesity the main culprits responsible for the rise of arthritis? Dr. Wallace would suggest not. In fact, it seems like you can thank the simple yet impactful result of modern-day inactivity for the increase in knee osteoarthritis.
Moving Forward (Without Joint Pain)
In a way, Dr. Wallace’s research should give people hope. While we have no control over aging, adding more activity to our lives can prevent if not halt the progression of osteoarthritis (among other forms of arthritis).
So, what do preventative arthritis activities look like?
For starters, you can explore resistance training and equipment such as resistance bands. They have an advantage over dumbbells and don’t require you to step into a gym. Resistance (or ‘exercise’) bands provide constant tension which helps improve balance and promote muscle strength.
An incredible benefit of resistance training that people often overlook is that it improves bone density. People tend to hit peak bone mass around the age of 30 before they start having to worry about maintaining the bone they’ve spent their lives building. But whether you’re under thirty-years-old or over, resistance training is the best think you can do to build and maintain bone health, muscle mass, and overall health. (The videos below are a perfect place to start.)
More Tips for Preventing Osteoarthritis
Resistance band exercises you can do at home
Make a habit of going on walks around your neighborhood once a day
Try to stay active if your job requires you to stand or sit for a long time
Strengthen the muscles around your bones and joints