Understanding Our Joints, Cartilage, and The Aging Process | 1MD

Understanding Our Joints, Cartilage, and The Aging Process

8 minute read


Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis in the world. Marked by inflammation and pain in several joints in the body, osteoarthritis is the number one cause of disability among Americans. Degenerative joint disease affects approximately 27 million Americans over the age of 25 and even worse, 34 percent of those over 65 are affected. These numbers are expected to rise as more Americans are living into old age.

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What You Need to Know About Your Joints

Your joints are cushioned with cartilage, a smooth, rubbery connective tissue.  This covering at the end of your bones allows smooth and easy movement, but over time, it begins to wear away.  The degeneration of cartilage causes chronic inflammation which only serves to further breakdown the remaining cartilage.

The most commonly affected joints are in the hands, feet, spine and weight-bearing joints like the hips. If untreated, it can cause irreparable damage.  

The membrane (synovium) produces a thick fluid responsible for keeping cartilage healthy and the joint movements smooth. As osteoarthritis progresses, the synovium gets inflamed and thicker which produces extra fluid and causes swelling.

Once cartilage has begun to deteriorate, adjacent bones will get less lubrication from the synovial fluid. After some time, bones contact one another, which creates severe pain and further inflammation. The continued scraping together of bones eventually leads to the development of thick bone spurs.  


The Role of Aging

The older we get, the more we feel the pains of standing or sitting for extended times, climbing stairs, and exercise. We do not recover as quickly as we used to. The degeneration of cartilage occurs as we age so without our natural shock absorbers, we feel the pain in our joints.

Additionally, we lose muscle tone and bone strength, making physical tasks more difficult on the body.  Apart from age, there are additional factors that contribute to cartilage degeneration and joint pain.

Excess weight: Being overweight places additional stress on bones and joints, especially the knees. Obesity also makes us less likely to be physically active.

Gender: Men are more likely to develop osteoarthritis before the age of 45 and women after the age of 50.  It is more prevalent in women than men until around age 80, when both genders are affected equally.

Family history: Genetics can play a role in the development of osteoarthritis. Your chances of developing it increase if you have family members that have been diagnosed.

Occupation: The more your body is used rigorously as part of your job, the more stress it goes through. Construction, cleaning, agricultural work, and retail are examples of jobs that can put strain on the body. When your joints are worked harder, you tend to age faster physically.


Degenerative Joint Disease

Osteoarthritis is considered degenerative because it progressively gets worse with time.  At this time, there is no cure, so once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed. Symptoms can develop all over your body in any of your joints. The most commonly reported symptoms include joint pain, stiffness, trouble moving, and trouble with every days tasks like dressing.  

When the hips are affected, you may feel pain through your groin, buttocks or knees. With your spine, you tend to feel numbness and lower back pain. Additionally, ongoing pain causes sleep disturbances, depression, feelings of hopelessness, and weight changes.  

The contributing factors of degenerative joint disease can vary widely. Apart from aging, gender, and repeated strenuous job movements, there are additional factors to consider. If you have congenital joint malformation, you are at greater risk for developing joint problems.

Unhealthy lifestyles such as lack of exercise, smoking and malnutrition can also contribute. Any injuries or unexpected trauma to joints can increase your chances of osteoarthritis even after the wound has long healed.

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Traditional Treatments

The medical world developed several options to help arthritis sufferers. For the most part, the medications or treatments target the symptoms because there is no real cure for degenerative joint diseases.  The most commonly used medications are over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Sometimes the pain can be worse in which case these medications generally are ineffective and stronger drugs may be needed.  

Corticosteroid and hyaluronic injections can help reduce the pain of inflamed joints.  However, these injections can cause further damage to joints so they are only used as a last resort.  Surgery is another last resort option and is usually reserved for those who have severe and debilitating osteoarthritis.

For those who want to avoid joint replacement surgery, a less invasive option of osteotomy is available. This is a bone removal procedure that reduces the size of bone spurs.  If this does not work, doctors may recommend bone fusion or even joint replacement.


What You Can Do

Not all people like the options of surgery or medications.  There are always risks and possible side effects that can be unpleasant.There are things that you can do to not only prevent joint degeneration but to help with symptoms once they start to show. The primary goals of any treatment are to reduce inflammation or swelling and control pain, as well as improve mobility and function.

1. Keep It Moving

Osteoarthritis can cause limited movements but overall people feel better and experience less pain when they perform light to moderate exercise. The more you move, the more strength you develop and the better intact you can stay as you age.  Exercise also improves circulation, strengthens muscles, increases flexibility, and lowers inflammation.  

Exercise can not only keep off excess weight that can damage your joints but also improves cardiovascular health and range of movements. When it comes to exercises for degenerative joint diseases, you want to focus on strengthening, aerobic, and range-of-motion activities.  Swimming is an ideal exercise because it supports your weight as you gently work your muscles and joints.

2. Nutrient-Dense Diets

Research shows that a poor diet increases inflammation throughout the body.  The best way to protect your cartilage and lower inflammation is to include as many anti-inflammatory foods in your diet as you can.  These foods deliver essential fatty acids, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that support your immune system, lower pain, and help with healthy tissue and bone formation.  The best foods to focus your diet around are below.

♦ Fresh vegetables (at least four to five servings a day)
♦ Fruit, pieces not juice (three to four servings a day)
♦ Herbs, spices and teas
♦ Probiotic foods
♦ Wild caught fish, cage-free eggs and other foods high in omega-3.
♦ Healthy fats
♦ Bone broth


The Bottom Line

Our joints are important but they do not last forever.  By understanding how they can degenerate, you can develop a plan to take care of them.  The right diet, exercise, getting plenty of rest, and maintaining a healthy weight are all simple methods you can employ to defend against osteoarthritis.  

While it may still be inevitable that degeneration can develop, by learning what you can do, the pain can be minimal and your life does not have to be impacted in a negative way.  There is no reason you have to sit on the sidelines as you get older.


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  1. http://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/guide/osteoarthritis-basics
  2. http://www.healthline.com/health/osteoarthritis/understanding-aging-and-joints#3
  3. https://spinecare.luminhealth.com/conditions/degenerative-joint-disease/

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