Arthritis risk increases with age, but joint pain doesn’t have to

Many people think joint pain and arthritis are inevitable in aging. For this reason, being told you have arthritis can feel a little bit like a lost cause. But what if it’s not? Read on to explore available arthritis treatment options, debunk a few arthritis myths and learn why you may not be able to blame your joint pain on old age anymore.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is pain, stiffness or swelling in the joints. A joint is a part of the body where bones come together to allow movement. There are over 300 joints in the human body. Most of the body’s major joints have cartilage, a cushion-like structure between the bones that promotes smooth movement and prevents friction. Arthritis can cause damage to the bones and cartilage within the joint. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2015, over 23% of adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with some form of arthritis. By 2040, the CDC projects that this number will increase to nearly 26% of U.S. adults. And these statistics reflect only adults who have been to their doctor for a formal diagnosis – the number of U.S. adults with arthritis is likely to be even higher.  

To complicate things further, there are over 100 different arthritis-related joint conditions, the most common being osteoarthritis (OA). According to the CDC, OA affects over 32 million Americans, is a leading cause of disability and was the second most costly condition treated in U.S. hospitals in 2013. It’s the most common cause of joint pain and the type of arthritis most people are familiar with. 

OA is associated with general wear and tear of the joint, which happens more as you get older. It’s also possible for OA to come on earlier in life because of a previous injury. With OA, the joint’s cartilage can break down over time, causing swelling, pain and damage to the bone surfaces. When the cartilage wears down enough, the bones can rub on each other — hence the phrase “bone-on-bone” that many people use when describing arthritis. OA is very common in weight-bearing joints and joints that allow a lot of movement, including the neck, back, hands, knees, hips and feet.

Good news: everyone ages, but not everyone has joint pain.

The risk of developing OA increases as you age. But we all get older, so why do some people have more arthritis than others? And, why do some lucky people manage to avoid joint pain altogether?

Research suggests that aging is just one of many factors contributing to arthritis and joint pain. There is no question that your muscles and joints change as you get older. But the human body has an amazing ability to adjust and restore balance to reduce the impact of these age-related changes. So it is possible to have minimal joint damage when you get older if you give your body the care it needs to make those adjustments.

It is also possible to have signs of arthritis (as seen on imaging like an X-Ray or MRI) and not have any joint pain. One study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that 43% of people over 40 had obvious knee joint or cartilage damage on imaging without any reported knee pain or injury. This number increased to almost 75% for individuals over 70. Other studies have found similar outcomes for the spine and hip. 

So, as expected, more people get arthritis as they get older – but not everyone does. And more importantly, even when imaging shows arthritis in a joint, many people still have no pain. 

So, if getting old doesn’t necessarily cause joint pain, what does?

Genetics. You may be more likely to get painful arthritis if it runs in your family.

Previous injury or surgery. Injuries in your youth can show up again as you get older. This is particularly true for major joint injuries or previous surgeries, which can contribute to early-onset or more severe OA.

Obesity. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of arthritis and joint pain. Additional body weight places increased strain and stress on the joints.

Weakness. The muscles surrounding your joints work to stabilize them. So, muscle weakness can cause your joints to become unstable, causing more strain and increasing your risk of injury and arthritis.

Poor mobility. Arthritis can cause swelling, stiffness and reduced range of motion in your joints. Often, this increased stiffness is a protective reaction by the body to reduce the risk of injury. A stiff joint experiences stress differently and often develops further irritation and joint damage.

More good news: Joint pain can get better.

One of the reasons arthritis is so defeating is because it seems like nothing can be done about it. But now we know that it’s possible to have arthritis and NOT have joint pain. So, you may not be able to get rid of your arthritis, but you can decrease your joint pain. 

Here are some things you can try:

  1. Be active: Moving can help reduce joint stiffness and improve physical health.
  2. Physical therapy (PT): PT can help by addressing some of the major factors contributing to joint pain, including swelling, weakness, joint stiffness and poor postural habits.
  3. Weight loss: losing weight can help reduce the strain on your joints.
  4. Medications: over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, medicated creams and other prescription medications can help reduce joint pain symptoms.
  5. Supportive devices: using a cane, walker, brace, or other devices can help reduce joint stress, improve your stability and reduce pain.
  6. Surgery: total joint replacement surgery can remove the damaged joint and decrease pain.

RecoveryOne for joint pain

Just because you have arthritis doesn’t mean you have to live with pain. But if you do have pain, resist the urge to simply blame it on old age. Chances are that there are other factors at play. RecoveryOne offers convenient, online physical therapy with proven exercise programs and 1-on-1 health coaching to help address these contributing factors and get you on the right path to recovery.

RecoveryOne’s joint care programs are designed to help you get stronger, increase your mobility and help you get back to the things you love. Start by talking to a licensed physical therapist to better understand your unique condition and figure out which program is the right fit for your joint pain. And, because you can do RecoveryOne entirely online, you’ll be able to fit exercises into your schedule and make your program work for your lifestyle. 

About the Author: 

Written by Dr. Jess Cobb, PT, DPT. Jess is a licensed physical therapist with over six years of clinical experience in orthopedics. Jess is also a writer, educator and member of RecoveryOne’s marketing team. She’s passionate about helping people better understand their pain, manage their musculoskeletal conditions and confidently get back to the activities they love! 

This blog and its contents do not constitute medical advice specific to you or your condition. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be used for self-diagnosis. Consult a qualified professional for appropriate medical advice.