While the word “arthritis” directly translates into “joint inflammation,” it is actually a collection of nearly 100 different diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system in one way or another. The most common form by far is osteoarthritis (OA), also known as “wear and tear arthritis” for the damage it inflicts on the cartilage lining the ends of bones.
OA is actually a complicated disease process in which cartilage cells (and other cells in and around the joint) alter the fine balance between the buildup and the breakdown of the components that make up the cartilage structure. In normal cartilage, there is a slow breakdown that is evenly balanced by the buildup of healthy cartilage molecules. In osteoarthritis, the breakdown occurs at a faster rate, resulting in a net loss of cartilage over time.
Once the cartilage loss is severe enough to start exposing underlying bone, symptoms such as dull aching pain or joint stiffness become apparent.
Get the Facts
While there are many excellent resources for obtaining reliable information, it’s important to dispel a few of the more commonly held misconceptions about OA.
MYTH 1: Osteoarthritis is not a concern for young people.
FACT: OA can start as early as in your 20s, especially in athletes who have suffered either a series of minor injuries or one or more major injuries to a joint.
MYTH 2: When your joints ache, you should avoid exercise.
FACT: A joint that shows signs of inflammation—swelling, warmth, or redness—should be treated with rest and ice. But if the symptoms are chronic and there’s no active inflammation, some exercises can help strengthen bones and joints. Low-impact exercises (biking, swimming, walking on a forgiving surface, and controlled weight training) can actually improve OA symptoms and may even slow the disease process.
MYTH 3: Nutritional supplements don’t work.
FACT: More than 35 human clinical studies find glucosamine and chondroitin effective in alleviating joint pain and stiffness and in improving joint function. In fact, the evidence for glucosamine and chondroitin is so strong that the European organization for rheumatology (EULAR) recommends these supplements for treating osteoarthritis.
The U.S. medical community has recently begun embracing supplements as well. The NIH-funded GAIT study found the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin extremely effective in reducing pain and improving function in those OA sufferers who started the study with moderate to severe pain. And 78 percent of these subjects had significant relief. In this group, the supplements even outperformed Celebrex (celecoxib), a prescription drug for osteoarthritis.
In addition to pain reduction and function improvement, glucosamine and chondroitin help impede the disease process in osteoarthritis by rebalancing the dysfunctional rates of cartilage breakdown versus repair. X-rays show that people who take these supplements long term have improvements in cartilage structure, compared to those taking a placebo.
MYTH 4: All glucosamine and chondroitin formulas are alike.
FACT: While the FDA regulates dietary supplements, the quality of products on the market may vary. Look for a product that has clinical evidence to back up its claims. And take the researched dosages of at least 1,500 mg of glucosamine and 800 to 1,200 mg of chondroitin per day. Don’t choose products simply based on price, since inexpensive products often contain cheaper ingredients that may be less active or even inactive.
MYTH 5: Diet is not important in maintaining joint health.
FACT: Besides the obvious point that lowering your body weight will reduce stress on weight-bearing joints, many foods help your body fight osteoarthritis. Omega-3 oils (healthy fats) found in flaxseeds and fish (especially salmon, sardines, and herring) have an anti-inflammatory effect on joints. For those who do not consume much fish, try taking concentrated and highly purified omega-3 supplements.
Antioxidants, commonly found in fruits and vegetables, also slow the damage to cartilage from osteoarthritis. Ideally, consume five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables each day and consider taking antioxidant supplements containing vitamins A, C, and E, and the mineral selenium.
While you’re likely to develop osteoarthritis if you live long enough, you don’t necessarily have to suffer joint pain and stiffness. New progress has been made in preventing osteoarthritis—and the earlier you intervene, the better your chance of avoiding OA symptoms. No matter your age or current condition, these additional tips can help keep your joints healthy and pain free.
Work with your physician to uncover medical conditions you may have that can lead to osteoarthritis.
Prevent injuries through proper fitness training and instruction on equipment use, especially in activities that involve higher risks for injury.
Ensure proper recovery if you are injured.
Remember that keeping your joints healthy involves a number of steps, as well as some assistance from your healthcare professional. But enjoying physical independence without pain is well worth the effort!