One day, you notice when you wake up that you feel a little stiffer in the hips than usual. Or you’re surprised to see some swelling in your hands or other joints. Or you hear a cracking sound coming from your knees and wonder if that’s a normal sign of age or if it’s from sitting for too long. But is it?
Stiffness, swelling, cracking: All are potential signs of arthritis, or, more specifically, osteoarthritis, which happens when the cartilage — connective tissue in our joints — that normally cushions our bones wears down.
Pain and stiffness that get worse when you are physically active are possible symptoms of arthritis. You may be uncomfortable at night and feel stiff when you first wake up in the morning. Swelling in joints and loss of flexibility may be other red flags.
According to the CDC, about one in four American adults are diagnosed with some form of arthritis, and Black women are more vulnerable. “The risk of knee osteoarthritis is higher for Black women even after controlling for age, body mass index, smoking and prior knee injury,” says Michael L. Parks, M.D., a hip and knee surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Carrying extra weight is one factor. “Overweight women have nearly four times the risk of knee osteoarthritis,” Dr. Parks notes. “For every additional pound of weight, your knee bears about four added pounds of stress that can lead to cartilage breakdown.” Genetics may also play a role.
Arthritis can seem to sneak up on us in the prime of life, in the late 40s or even earlier.
Arthritis can seem to sneak up on us in the prime of life, in the late 40s or even earlier. But that doesn’t mean you are destined for constant pain or knee surgery, which is a treatment of last resort. Getting medical attention early and self-care can help.
Know the signs. Pain and stiffness that get worse when you are physically active are possible symptoms of arthritis. You may be uncomfortable at night and feel stiff when you first wake up in the morning. Swelling in joints and loss of flexibility may be other red flags.
See your doctor. If pain in the joints is beginning to interfere with daily activities like walking your dog or running errands, it’s time to schedule a checkup. “This is especially true if over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium taken at the recommended doses have failed to provide satisfactory relief,” Dr. Parks says.
Shed 10 percent of your weight. If you are overweight or obese, losing pounds can help take stress off your joints. “Some research has shown up to a 50 percent improvement in symptoms with 10 percent weight reduction through diet and exercise,” Dr. Parks notes. That’s 20 pounds if you weigh 200, and so on.
Choose low-impact exercise. If you participate in a high-impact activity like running, it’s time to try something less taxing on your joints, like biking, walking or swimming, especially if arthritis affects your knees or hips. Ask your physician about using a cane or knee brace for extra support as well.
Ease the ache. Talk to your provider about using over-the-counter painkillers to alleviate joint pain. In cases where over-the-counter drugs don’t do the trick, there are other options, including steroids, that reduce inflammation in the knee. Hyaluronan injections, another source of relief, help replace the natural lubricant in the knee joints; injections are applied once or several times over a period of weeks. Additionally, “gels which mimic joint fluid and stem cell solutions have gained favor,” Dr. Parks says.
Consider alternative therapies. Acupuncture, a form of Chinese medicine that involves placing needles in specific points along the body to release the flow of qi, or energy, might be useful. One study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that patients did feel less pain and experienced better functioning after receiving acupuncture for joint pain, compared with control groups. Research on the efficacy of supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin and curcumin is limited, and the results are mixed. If you want to try supplements, ask your doctor if they might interact with other medications you’re already taking.