Once considered an "old person's disease," arthritis is now more than ever a painful disease affecting the masses. Approximately 46 million Americans are living with doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and one in two will suffer from the debilitating condition during their lifetime. In fact, it's the leading cause of disability in people older than 15. Yep, 15, not 50. And as more Baby Boomers begin to feel their joints, those numbers will increase, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Although the number of arthritis sufferers is rising, the pain index doesn't have to. Today, safer, more effective treatments are available than even just a few years ago. Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of this potentially crippling disease provide hope, whether you already feel arthritic twinges or simply wish to avoid them in the future.
Because osteoarthritis, the most common form, is a progressive condition, eliminating risk factors early in life can have huge payoffs later on. "What starts as a joint strain can progress into arthritis as cartilage gradually wears away," says Dr. Mark Miller, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia Health System. Whether you're 30 years old or 50, arthritis needn't be a dreary diagnosis followed by a life of pain. Here are some great ideas and new ways to keep joint problems at bay.
Diagnose earlier. Currently there's no cure for arthritis because doctors can't diagnose the disease while it's in a reversible stage. But researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are examining arthritic joints to determine specific genes and proteins in injured cartilage that are involved in onset of the disease. "We're developing biomarker panels that may allow us to predict which joints will be affected by arthritis and determine the severity of the disease before patients have symptoms. Then we can find better ways to reverse or at least markedly slow its progression," says study author Dr. James Cook.
Supplement sunshine. Increased vitamin D levels, particularly for individuals living in northern latitudes or with dark skin, may help improve muscle strength and physical function in patients with knee osteoarthritis, according to Boston University researcher Dr. Kristin Baker.
Take birth control pills. Women taking birth control pills have tighter, more stable knee joints and more flexibility—an extra level of protection for any woman who exercises regularly. That's especially good news since women are four to eight times more likely than men to sustain a serious knee injury. Such injuries that happen early in life often have a degenerative effect resulting in arthritis in the affected joint, adds Miller.
Choose flexible footwear. Studies show that clogs and stability shoes increase the load on knees, while walking shoes and flip-flops allow a natural foot motion similar to walking barefoot, which is better for knees. Flat, flexible shoes provide the greatest benefit for limiting the progression of knee osteoarthritis.
Grow new cartilage. Cartilage does not regenerate in adults, but researchers at Northwestern University are hoping to change that with a new material that promotes the growth of new cartilage within the body. By injecting a gel in liquid form around the damaged joint, bone marrow stem cells are activated to produce natural cartilage. In separate research, scientists at Duke University have successfully grown cartilage from stem cells culled from body fat and hope to test their procedure in humans within four years.