Dear Dr. Prescott,
Over the past 10 years, arthritis has affected every joint in my body. I’ve seen my regular doctor, a rheumatologist and even other specialists. The diagnosis is always the same, and it almost seems they expect it to happen as we get older. Why is there not more research on this debilitating condition that affects the vast majority of people as they age?
Bob Coleman, Granbury, TX
I can understand your frustration.
Arthritis is probably the most common disease among older adults. The Arthritis Foundation reports that almost half of people over the age of 65 have been diagnosed with arthritis. There are more than 100 forms of the disease, with the most prevalent being osteoarthritis, which results, at least in part, from the accumulated wear and tear on our joints. It sounds like that might be what’s afflicting you.
From a patient’s perspective, there can never be enough research. And scientists agree. Still, when it comes to arthritis, more research is occurring than you may know.
An entire portion of the National Institutes of Health—the National Institute of Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases—is devoted to researching the causes, treatment and prevention of arthritis and related conditions. Each year, that federal institute spends more than $500 million toward that goal.
The vast majority of those funds go directly to research on arthritis. While those projects haven’t yet found a cure, they certainly have yielded interesting insights that can help people with osteoarthritis.
First off, research indicates that one of the most important contributing factors to the disease may be fat. Extra pounds increase stress on joints, and OMRF’s Dr. Tim Griffin has also found the fat molecules themselves may also cause osteoarthritis. The good news here is that even moderate weight loss of 10 pounds or so can significantly reduce the pain and disability associated with arthritis.
A multitude of studies have tied arthritis to inflammation. One way to try to reduce inflammation is to minimize or avoid foods believed to cause it, like sugar, saturated fats, alcohol and refined carbohydrates. Indeed, at OMRF, Griffin recently found that in laboratory mice, diets high in carbs or refined sugar—even if they didn’t produce weight gain—increased the animals’ rates of osteoarthritis.
Finally, research has shown it’s important to stay active. You may have to shift from activities that are heavy on pounding (jogging, aerobics) to things that go easier on your joints (swimming, biking). Strength training is also key, because weak muscles can’t support compromised joints.
Obviously, nothing here is a silver bullet. But you might try some of these approaches. In the meantime, we’re going to keep working on finding new ones!