En español | Stiff knees, achy hips and swollen hands? If you're 50 and over, it could be osteoarthritis — a common “wear-and-tear” disease that happens when the cushion-like tissue between the bones breaks down over time, leading to joint pain.
"As we age, the one thing we can't change is the amount of time we've had on our joints. So at 55, you have 55-year-old knees,” says Dominic King, a sports medicine physician and director of clinical transformation at Cleveland Clinic's Orthopaedic & Rheumatologic Institute.
More than 32.5 million U.S. adults have osteoarthritis, and most of them are older adults. While there's no way to cure or reverse the disorder, there are some tried-and-true ways to prevent it or keep it from getting worse.
Here are five ways to take care of your joints after 50.
1. Stay physically active
It may sound counterintuitive to put more stress and strain on the body, but regular exercise is one of the best ways to treat osteoarthritis and preserve joint health.
One reason: Exercise strengthens the muscles around the joints, helping to take pressure off of them. It can also improve the flow of nutrients to the cartilage, explains Eric Hume, associate professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery and director of quality and safety in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn Medicine.
There's no blood supply to the cartilage, so it “doesn't get nutrition the normal way that all the other tissues in our body get it,” Hume says. Instead, the cartilage is dependent on “repetitive motion” to push knee joint fluid into the cartilage. This fluid is “filled up with sugar and other biochemicals that the cartilage needs,” Hume adds. “So the low-impact repetition of exercise actually has a protective effect on the knee.”
When it comes to choosing an exercise plan, there's no one-size-fits-all approach for adults 50 and older. But if you're already experiencing some joint pain, low-impact activities like biking, swimming or walking are likely going to be more comfortable than, say, running. Range-of-motion exercises such as yoga and tai chi are also helpful. A health care provider can help you pick an activity — or several — that best fits your needs and would best alleviate your symptoms.
"The takeaway is, ‘Motion is lotion,’ “ King says. “The more you move, the more you're likely to keep moving. The worst thing you can do with osteoarthritis after 50 is be sedentary.”
2. Maintain a healthy weight
Nearly 45 percent of U.S. adults ages 40 to 59 are obese, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Extra weight, Hume explains, puts extra stress on the joints — especially weight-bearing joints like the knees and hips.
"If you have normal-sized tires in your knee” — tires being a metaphor Hume uses for the cushiony cartilage between the bones — “but you're carrying around twice the body weight that the knees are designed for, the wear obviously is going to become more severe more rapidly,” he says.
One study found that losing 1 pound of body weight reduces the load on the knees by 4 pounds. What's more, fat tissue produces proteins that can cause inflammation in and around your joints, which is another reason losing weight can help with joint discomfort.
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Being underweight can pose problems for the joints, too. Oftentimes people who are underweight lack proper muscle development, and “the cartilage is not made to accept all of the compression and all of the force, especially when we're talking about the knees,” King says.
This force is meant to be distributed throughout the body. “You need good muscle strength, you need good flexibility, you need good core strength and hip strength to be able to absorb that impact,” he adds.
3. Clean up your diet
Hand in hand with weight management is a healthy diet. Hume's focus is less on one food or nutrient; instead, he says, it's all about portion control, steering clear of empty calories and having “a nice balance of proteins.”
Some research shows a Mediterranean diet — rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and healthy fats — benefits people with osteoarthritis. A 4,470-person study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, found that adults with osteoarthritis who stuck to a Mediterranean diet more often had less pain, disability and depressive symptoms. Another study found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of worsening knee pain from osteoarthritis.
Supplements abound when it comes to joint pain. Glucosamine and chondroitin are two of the most commonly marketed, but evidence of their effectiveness is scant, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health. Same goes for dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), which have been used for arthritis.
Because glucosamine and chondroitin may interact with blood thinners, like warfarin, and could interfere with the way the body handles sugar, it's important to talk to your doctor before taking them or any other supplement. DMSO and MSM can also come with side effects, including an upset stomach and skin irritation.
4. Stay hydrated
If you're dehydrated, your body will start siphoning water from other sources, including the cartilage, which is mostly water (about 80 percent). Drawing water out of the cartilage, however, lessens its lubrication, which can lead to joint pain. “We certainly know that keeping the cartilage well hydrated is one of the best ways to keep it healthy,” King says.
Drinking plenty of water also helps flush inflammatory toxins out of the body and prevents injury to other areas that work in tandem with the joints. “Well-hydrated tendons, well-hydrated ligaments, well-hydrated muscles are less likely to get injured,” King adds.
5. Manage your pain
When joint pain strikes, you don't have to suffer through it. There are simple ways to alleviate the aches that accompany arthritis. First though, try to understand what brought on the pain.
"Was it because you tried something new? Was it because you pushed too hard?” If so, take a few days off and try again — just be sure to listen to your body, King says.
You may find that ice after exercise and a compression sleeve during is enough to keep joint pain at bay. If it persists, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen and naproxen) and pain relievers (acetaminophen) can help. Just be sure to talk to your pharmacist or health care provider about which one is best for you. Anti-inflammatories can increase bleeding risks in the gastrointestinal tract, and this risk increases with age; people with liver damage should avoid acetaminophen.
There are also topical pain relievers, which come with fewer side effects. The key is finding one that works best for you — once you do, “you're golden,” Hume says.
If your pain is more severe, your doctor may recommend a corticosteroid or viscosupplement injection. Partial or total joint-replacement surgery is a last resort and is typically reserved for people with extensive damage.
"Being patient is another goal” when it comes to taking care of your joints, King says. “You may not be able to relive all of your glory years of when you were 20 and 30. But with the right preparation and a realistic expectation, the years that you have in front of you could be even better.”
Osteoarthritis vs. rheumatoid arthritis
The two main types of arthritis have a few key differences. Here's how to tell them apart.
Cause: Wear-and-tear damage to the cartilage that causes its breakdown over time.
Symptoms: Pain, stiffness and sometimes swelling in the joint; also, loss of flexibility in the joint.
Another sign: Osteoarthritis tends to show up in a single joint or in a pair (like the knees).
Cause: The body's immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing swelling and inflammation.
Symptoms: Tender, warm, swollen joints; also, joint stiffness that lasts a long time.
Another sign: Rheumatoid arthritis shows up in multiple joints over time.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.