Joint Pain Isn’t Inevitable With Age

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 29, 2021

As you age, you might expect that some level of joint pain or arthritis is just part of the territory. Experts now say that may not be the case if you start making healthy changes early.

Pain showing up as people age is a real thing. More than 50% of people over the age of 65 have some level of joint pain.

Types of Pain

Knowing the ways pain can show up in your joints can get you on the right path.

“Joint pain is dependent on many things such as family history, physical activity levels, environmental conditions, history of injuries or trauma,” says Brett Smith, DO, a rheumatologist in Alcoa, TN. “Pain is more common as we age, but not necessarily a fact of life.”

There are many types of arthritis. Two you may hear the most about are:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis. It impacts 27 million Americans. Osteoarthritis is often called wear and tear arthritis because it comes from using your joints over time or after an injury. In OA, the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in your joints wears away until bone rubs on bone.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory condition where your immune system attacks the tissue that lines your joints. Symptoms can also include tender, warm, stiff, and swollen joints along with fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

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Knowing where pain might show up can be just as important as why. High-traffic joints like knees, lower back, neck, shoulder, toes, and the base of thumb are likely spots for OA joint pain due to injuries and extra weight. Arthritis often affects your hands because of your genes, hand injuries, or heavy use.

Take a close look at your lifestyle to see where you might be able to make some joint-friendly changes.

Quit Smoking

You’ve heard it before. Smoking causes a lot of damage. It can harm every organ in your body. The damage can also include your joints. You’re more likely to get RA and to have worse joint damage if you do. Some studies suggest smoking makes pain from knee OA worse and that smokers are twice as likely to have cartilage as nonsmokers. If you smoke, you may feel pain more intensely. It may also be harder to find relief from pain medication used to treat arthritis. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting. They may suggest joining a support group, using nicotine patches, or other remedies.

Lose Weight

One of the biggest contributors to joint pain is being overweight. One study found that every extra pound puts 4 pounds of pressure on your knees. Or to look at it a different way, losing 10 pounds of weight can take 40 pounds of pressure off.

Get (and Keep) Moving

Moving your body regularly can help prevent pain as you age and further prevent damage. Trade activities that take a toll on your joints like running for low-impact exercises like swimming, walking, and biking. Weight training builds the muscles that help support your joints. Exercises that strengthen your core (abs and back muscles) will help prevent falls and other injuries that might damage your joints.

Try to move daily. Find a walking buddy. If you sit a lot for work, try to take calls while standing or consider investing in a standing desk.

Ditch the Sugary Drinks

They can boost inflammation, lead to weight gain, and make you more likely to get RA. On the other hand, drinking enough water can help decrease pain. Your joints are 70%-80% water, so getting enough will keep the synovial fluid that in your joints well lubricated.

Eat the Good Stuff

Eating healthy food is another way to prevent joint pain as you age. Some foods can have a negative impact on your joints. They can trigger inflammation, pain, and swelling. 

“A healthy diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking from scratch to avoid processed foods,” says Elena Schiopu, MD, a rheumatology professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s time consuming, but we must invest in our health, including our joint health, which will determine our quality of life as we get older.”

Find healthy recipes that sound good to you, and consider cooking on Sunday or Monday for the week ahead.

Sleep Tight

A lack of quality sleep can make your joint pain worse. Restless nights can cause depression, worsen pain, and even make it more likely that your arthritis will lead to disability. When you don’t get enough shut-eye, it’s hard for your body to fight back against pain.

Making sleep a priority starts with good sleep hygiene. That means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Turn off electrical devices (cell phones, laptops, TVs) at least an hour before you hit the hay. Do things to calm you down, like taking a warm bath, sipping a cup of tea, or meditating.

Joint Pain Treatments

If you’re already having joint pain, talk to your doctor. Treatments that can help include:

In addition to traditional treatments, alternative therapies to joint pain may include supplements like:

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin. Some studies suggest these natural substances found in healthy cartilage (the connective tissue that cushions your joint) can protect cartilage and may help stop inflammation. Supplement products are made from the cartilage of animals like cows, pigs, or shellfish. They can also be made in a lab.
  • Fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids help your body make chemicals that manage inflammation and can help ease stiffness. You can get them as supplements and from foods like salmon, tuna, and nuts.

Or you might try procedures such as:

  • Acupuncture. This ancient Chinese healing practice has been found to be helpful for OA knee pain. A practitioner inserts small, thin needles into certain points in your body to increase energy flow to the area.
  • Viscosupplementation. This OA treatment involves a doctor injecting hyaluronic acid (a naturally occurring substance in joint fluid) into your joint (most commonly the knee). This fluid lubricates bones so they can move easily together.
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP). Doctors use your own blood platelets in strong doses to inject back into your joint. These platelets contain hundreds of proteins known as growth factors, which can help speed up the healing response in your body. But there isn’t enough evidence yet to say how well it works.

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Talk to your doctor about the options that may be best for you.

If you’re having joint pain at any age, talk to your doctor. Ask them how you might be able to take steps now to ensure your aging years are happy and pain free.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Elena Schiopu, MD, clinical associate professor, rheumatology and internal medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Abor.

Practical Pain Management: “Pain Management and the Elderly.”

Brett Smith, DO, rheumatologist, Alcoa, TN.

American Journal of Nursing: “The Impact of Osteoarthritis in the United States: A Population-Health Perspective.

Mayo Clinic: “Arthritis,” “Osteoarthritis,” “Rheumatoid arthritis.”

CDC: “Smoking & Tobacco Use.”

Arthritis Foundation: “5 Reasons Smoking Makes Arthritis Worse,” “Glucosamine and Chondroitin for Osteoarthritis Pain,” “Sleep and Pain,” “Weight Loss Benefits for Arthritis.”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Smoking and Musculoskeletal Health.”

Cleveland Clinic: “5 Best Ways to Save Your Joints As You Age,” “Here’s Why Losing Weight is the Key to Losing Joint Pain,” “Painful Arthritis in Your Knee? Acupuncture May Bring Relief,” “Why Smoking Will Increase Your Chronic Pain,” “The Best Exercises to Keep Your Joints Healthy.”

Brain & Life: “Core Exercises That Can Help Improve Balance and Prevent Falls.”

Select Health: “Why Sugary Beverages Are Harmful to Your Body.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Acupuncture,” “Obesity, Sugar and Heart Health.”

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Sugar-sweetened soda consumption and risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women.”

Orthopedic Associates: “Dehydration and Joint Pain: How Your Hydration is Affecting Joint Health.”

Dignity Health: “Five Arthritis Trigger Foods to Avoid.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Omega-3-rich foods: Good for your Heart”

Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP),” “Viscosupplementation Treatment of Knee Arthritis.”

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