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Arthritic Knee? Take a Walk

New study suggests a stroll can reduce the risk of persistent pain

A distraught senior Asian woman feeling unwell, suffering from pain in leg while sitting on sofa in the living room at home
AsiaVision

For older adults who develop knee osteoarthritis — caused by a loss, over time, of cartilage that cushions the ends of bones — walking for exercise may forestall frequent pain and limit damage to the joint, according to a study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology.

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The study, which included 1,212 participants 50 and older who had knee osteoarthritis, found that those who walked for exercise were about 40 percent less likely to develop frequent knee pain than nonwalkers. It also found some preliminary evidence that walking may lessen some of the structural toll that osteoarthritis takes on the knees.

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“These findings are particularly useful for people who have radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis but don’t have pain every day in their knees,” study coauthor Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, an assistant professor of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Baylor University, said in a statement. “This study supports the possibility that walking for exercise can help to prevent the onset of daily knee pain. It might also slow down the worsening of damage inside the joint from osteoarthritis.”

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Lo, who is also chief of rheumatology at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, noted that walking offers additional health benefits to older adults without the cost or risk of side effects that medications often come with.

“People diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis should walk for exercise, particularly if they do not have daily knee pain,” Lo said. “If you already have daily knee pain, there still might be a benefit, especially if you have the kind of arthritis where your knees are bow-legged.”

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What the study did

For the source of their data, the researchers turned to the Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI), a 10-year multicenter observational study of men and women, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Participants in the OAI, who were enrolled from 2004 to 2006, self-reported the amount of time and frequency they walked for exercise. Among the 1,212 participants, 73 percent reported 10 or more instances of walking for exercise at age 50 and older (they were classified as walkers). The remaining 27 percent were labeled nonwalkers.

Participants were asked about knee pain at various times during the OAI study. At the start of it, they also had radiographic images taken, which determined that they had osteoarthritis in at least one knee. Additional radiographs were taken three and four years after subjects enrolled in the study. Participants were also questioned about the frequency of pain that they experienced in their knees.

Those who initially did not have frequent knee pain (pain, aching or stiffness on most days) but who reported frequent pain four years later were considered to have “new frequent knee pain.” The researchers also assessed whether the X-rays showed that a participant’s arthritis had worsened on the “medial” or inner side of the joint. They found “medial joint space narrowing” was less common among walkers.

“The findings from our study provide a glimmer of hope that there may be an inexpensive intervention that modifies the structure and symptoms related to osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis and a source of substantial disability,” the researchers concluded.

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