They say nothing is inevitable except death and taxes. But to hear doctors tell it, many patients believe they’re destined to get arthritis as they age no matter what they do. Not only is that a myth, but it’s one that often keeps people from doing the simple things that can, in fact, prevent the condition, says Dr. Patience White, vice president of public health for the Arthritis Foundation.
“You want a plan that you’re going to follow to protect those joints—just like you keep your cholesterol down,” she says.
Here are some of the most persistent myths about arthritis, plus expert tips on keeping your joints in top shape at any age.
Myth: There’s no way to prevent arthritis.
Fact: Osteoarthritis, the most common joint disease, is actually very preventable, but the prescription involves a delicate balance. It’s crucial to be active—30 minutes 5 days a week at minimum—to strengthen both your joints and the muscles that support them. But you also need to avoid injury.
“If you have a major knee injury, you’re likely going to get osteoarthritis in that knee in 10 years,” White says. She cautions against being a “weekend warrior” who pushes herself through tough workouts a few times a week but is sedentary the other five days. You’re more likely to injure yourself in that scenario, and leave your joints more vulnerable. A better plan is frequent, moderate exercise like walking, which is safe and highly effective for joints.
RELATED: Try Our 10-Week Walking Program
Myth: Only old people get arthritis.
Fact: “There are more people under the age of 65 with arthritis than over the age of 65,” says White. “Many younger people are getting joint pain because they’re active—and that’s OK.” The important thing, she says, is that you seek treatment no matter when you start to see the warning signs.
Myth: Joint pain is always caused by arthritis.
Fact: You might think that persistent ache in your hip is just a sign of aging. But don’t put off treatment because you fear your doctor will just say you’re too old for running or rock climbing and you need to slow down. Your pain may be due to bursitis—the swelling of the sac that serves as a cushion between muscles and joints—or tendonitis, swelling of the tendons. Both of these conditions are easily confused with arthritis because the pain is localized very close to the joints, and ignoring them could lead to serious injury.
Bottom line: If you’re having any chronic joint pain, tell your doc sooner rather than later. Whether it’s arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis or something else, none of those conditions means the end of your active lifestyle if you treat them appropriately.
RELATED: Arthritis Terms You Need to Know
Myth: Once you start having pain from arthritis, it’s all over—you can’t slow its progression.
Fact: It may be because of the association with age, but once people start to feel the first twinges of joint pain, many assume it’s the beginning of the end for their bodies—and their bucket list plans. But while you can’t reverse arthritis, you can significantly reduce your pain and slow its progression.
Step one? Lose a little weight. “For every pound you gain, it’s four pounds of pressure on the knee,” White says. “But losing little amounts of weight can make a huge difference—even 5 pounds could eliminate knee pain altogether.”
If your weight is under control but you’re still in a lot of pain, possibly from an old injury, consider physical therapy. A targeted rehabilitation plan can help strengthen the muscles that support your joints and make it possible for you to remain active.
Myth: With all the advancements in joint replacement, arthritis is no longer a serious concern.
Fact: “I think of a joint replacement as a ‘joint failure,’” says White. And in your 30s, 40s and 50s, it would behoove you to adopt the mindset, “Failure is not an option.” While the innovations in joint replacement technology are impressive, they’re not perfect, so you shouldn’t use them as a license to abuse your body with punishing workouts, she warns. Instead, put that sensible arthritis prevention plan in effect ASAP, and be vigilant about monitoring how your joints feel as you age.