How to Prevent Degenerative Joint Disease

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How to Prevent Degenerative Joint Disease
You may have watched one (or both) of your parents go from bounding up the stairs, two steps at a time, to barely going halfway up without groaning in pain. And now as you age, it may be your turn.

Although you can’t totally prevent osteoarthritis, there are several steps you can take that may delay the onset or cut your chances of developing joint disease, especially if you have one or more risk factors.

Get Moving!

Exercise is the most cost-effective and the best non-drug approach to prevent or delay osteoarthritis, a form of degenerative joint disease. Whether you hit the gym, go for a brisk walk, scrub the floors or tend to the garden, consistent and regular physical activity offers undeniable benefits. Regular physical exercise may help to:

Protect the knee cartilage

The meniscal and articular cartilage protect the knee joint from damage and keep it lubricated. Studies have shown that physical activity significantly increases the proteoglycan content of the knee cartilage, making it stronger, more elastic and resistant to damage. Regular exercise also protects the joint by increasing levels of lubricating proteins and the anti-inflammatory cytokine called interleukin-10.

Strengthen supportive muscles

Strength (resistance) training strengthens the muscles, supports the joints and improves overall joint function, as seen in a study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology. The study found that the stronger the quadriceps muscles are, the less the cartilage damage.1

Lose Weight

If you are overweight, exercising may reduce your body mass index (BMI) and minimize the weight that your joints have to bear.

Try to work your way up slowly to thirty minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise five times per week (or thirty minutes of vigorous cardio three times per week). You could do stationary biking, brisk walking, running, jogging or swimming.

You could also do strength training three to five times a week by using weights or doing squats, lunges and yoga. The aim is to be consistent and committed.

Please seek your physician’s advice before starting an exercise program to ease the symptoms of your degenerative joint disease.

Shed the Pounds

Weight loss may prevent or delay the onset of osteoarthritis and alleviate symptoms if you already have it, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Ryan Koonce, M.D and colleagues found that approximately half of all osteoarthritis cases may be prevented if overweight and obesity were removed as risk factors.2

Losing at least 5% of your body weight may decrease mechanical stress to the joints of your knees, hips and lower back. In the Framingham study, researchers found that losing eleven pounds or two BMI points may decrease risk for osteoarthritis by more than 50%.

Exercise may be a powerful tool when you want to lose weight. However, exercise alone produces only very modest changes in weight when compared to diet. Along with physical activity, you have to carefully monitor your diet by counting and restricting calories or, at the very least, controlling portion sizes. If you are diabetic, your physician or nutritionist will help you to formulate a diet plan.

Avoid Injuries

Although cartilage is not biologically inert, its metabolism is very sluggish; it receives virtually no blood flow, no nerve supply and no lymph supply, making it very difficult to heal when injured. Thus, fractures, dislocations, ligament strains and cartilage tears can increase osteoarthritis risk by three to five times.

So, it’s always important to protect your joints. Warm up before exercising by doing stretches. If you play contact or vigorous sports, wear protective gear such as joint padding. Use proper body mechanics when lifting, pushing or pulling; avoid bending the knee past 90 degrees. Also avoid twisting your knees suddenly.

If you are injured, take measures to minimize damage such as wearing a brace. For major cartilage tears, immediate treatment may minimize your risk of developing degenerative joint disease in the future.

Eat Nutritious Foods

There is no specific diet that prevents degenerative joint disease, but there are nutrients that may reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that produce lipids called resolvins and protectins. These lipids are very potent anti-inflammatory substances that may help prevent osteoarthritis and many other chronic diseases. Omega-3 fats prevent cartilage damage and bone changes, and relieve pain and inflammation. Rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna and krill), nuts (e.g., walnuts, macadamia, Brazil nuts and almonds), seeds (e.g., sunflower seeds, flaxseeds) and fish oil supplements.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with cartilage loss, a hallmark of osteoarthritis. On the other hand, sunlight exposure, the best vitamin D source, and high vitamin D levels increase joint surface area and protect them from cartilage loss. Food sources for vitamin D include fatty fish, eggs and vitamin D supplements.

Vitamin C

Perhaps the most important role of vitamin C in the body is in the biosynthesis of collagen. Vitamin C helps the body make healthy collagen, which strengthens cartilage, ligaments and tendons. Deficiency of this vitamin makes collagen weak and quick to break. Vitamin C sources include green pepper, tomatoes and citrus fruits.

Other nutrients that may prevent osteoarthritis are astaxanthin and curcumin.

Ultimately, your best defense against any degenerative joint disease is a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy foods, exercise, sleep well, avoid stress, maintain a healthy weight, and control blood sugar.

1 Amin S, Baker K, Niu J et al. Quadriceps strength and the risk of cartilage loss and symptom progression in knee osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2009;60(1):189-198. doi:10.1002/art.24182.
2 Koonce R, Bravman J. Obesity and Osteoarthritis: More Than Just Wear and Tear. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. 2013;21(3):161-169. doi:10.5435/jaaos-21-03-161.