How To Prevent Arthritis: What Experts Say

Nearly 58.5 million people live with some form of arthritis in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[1]. Arthritis takes on several forms, including degenerative wear and tear known as osteoarthritis and autoimmune-related conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Symptoms associated with arthritis include pain and stiffness, difficulty walking or climbing stairs, writing and even sleeping.

While there’s no cure for arthritis, getting diagnosed and seeking treatment can greatly improve a person’s quality of life—and potentially slow down the progression of the condition. Continue reading to learn more about arthritis, including its types, symptoms, causes and potential treatment options.

What Is Arthritis?

The term arthritis refers to more than 100 diseases and related conditions. Two of the most common types of arthritis include osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

  • Osteoarthritis: OA is the most common type of arthritis and is caused by a non-inflammatory erosive wear and tear or degenerative response to aging—most commonly occurring in weight-bearing joints and the knuckles of your fingers. When the cartilage within a joint starts to break down, people with osteoarthritis may experience pain, stiffness and swelling.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease caused by the body’s immune system attacking the lining of the membrane that encloses a joint. RA most commonly causes inflammation in the hands, wrists and knees. The condition can also affect other tissues and organs, including an increased risk of lung inflammation and scarring and hardened heart arteries. It presents as morning stiffness that lasts longer than an hour, worsens with rest and improves with activity.

Arthritis may also be associated with the following conditions:

  • Fibromyalgia is characterized by pain all over the body—not just in joints—and increased sensitivity to pain. This condition affects about 2% of adults, but women are twice as likely to have fibromyalgia than men, according to the CDC[2].
  • Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis due to a buildup of uric acid crystals that typically affects one joint at a time. A person with gout may experience a period of remission where no symptoms occur—and periods known as flares, where the affected joint becomes painful due to joint inflammation. These flares can be precipitated by certain food and drink items including red meat and alcohol.
  • Lupus: Arthritis in people with lupus affects the body similarly to RA as it is also autoimmune and usually occurs in the small joints like the hands, wrists and feet. About 95% of people with lupus will experience arthritis or joint pain during the course of their disease[3]. It is associated with fatigue, fevers and a rash of the face and can affect all aspects of the body including the kidneys, brain and heart.

Arthritis Symptoms

Specific symptoms of arthritis vary depending on the type of arthritis a person has, but a hallmark sign of the condition is joint pain when using the affected body part.

“As an example, if one were to have osteoarthritis of their thumb joint, it may be painful to open a jar or play a guitar,” says Nasim Chowdhury, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian. “Arthritic knees would be painful while walking or using stairs.”

Other arthritis symptoms can include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Crepitus (grinding or creaking sound coming from the affected joint)

People with RA may also experience fatigue, drowsiness and physical weakness. Persistent stiffness and pain, specifically in the morning and lasting longer than an hour, are also common symptoms of RA, adds Dr. Chowdhury.

However, it’s important to note that these specific symptoms are not always caused by arthritis. There can be many potential culprits, including sprains, broken bones and various diseases, such as different types of cancer or lyme disease.

“A sprained knee and an arthritic knee, for example, can feel similar,” says Dr. Chowdhury.

“A good rule of thumb is that if there is no improvement with activity modifications, ice and elevation of the joint after two to three weeks, it is reasonable to obtain an evaluation by a physician for arthritis.”

Expert-Backed Arthritis Prevention Tips

There is no definite way to prevent arthritis, as certain risk factors—such as sex, genetics and age—can’t be controlled. However, certain lifestyle factors can increase the risk of arthritis and are preventable.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Being overweight is a risk factor for developing OA in the knees and can cause arthritis to advance more quickly. Not only can maintaining a healthy weight mitigate the risk of arthritis, it can also reduce arthritic pain and improve joint function in those who already have the condition.

“Maintaining a healthy weight is very important, and in addition to the cardiovascular benefits, can help lower the chances of developing OA,” says Dr. Chowdhury.

Following an anti-inflammatory diet

Research suggests that diet plays a role in the risk of developing RA and its progression. Certain foods can be beneficial in lowering the risk of arthritis, while other foods can have the opposite effect.

“Processed sugars are pro-inflammatory, and I typically suggest patients stay away [from those types of food],” says Dr. Chowdhury.

In addition to sugar, red meat, high calorie foods and refined carbohydrates, salt can also increase risk of inflammation or worsen existing inflammation.

“Foods such as turmeric have an anti-inflammatory component and may be a good option to incorporate into your diet,” adds Dr. Chowdhury.

Other foods that help fight inflammation include certain oils, such olive oil and flaxseed oil, fatty fish, vegetables, citrus fruits and other staples of the Mediterranean diet.

Incorporating low-impact exercise

Cartilage can’t rebuild itself, so once it’s eroded, it can’t be restored with exercise. However, resistance training can increase bone density, which can help protect joints from injury.

“Exercise is so important for managing chronic osteoarthritis,” says Alexander Van der Ven, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with Baptist Health Orthopedic Care in Florida.

“Once you’ve made a diagnosis of what your condition is, it really is important to find ways to stay active and to maintain your physical function, even if [that means] living with some level of pain,” says Dr. Van der Ven.

In fact, a study on 264 individuals with knee or hip OA found that participation in a supervised exercise program resulted in decreased pain and increased quality of life among participants after three months, which persisted at the 12-month follow-up.[4]

Aquatic therapy has also been shown to alleviate pain in patients with OA.

Quitting smoking

Smoking increases the risk of cancer, lung disease and heart disease and is also a risk factor for RA. Smoking can also make the disease worse.

While the exact pathogenic effect of smoking on RA is still uncertain, the association of smoking and the development of RA is demonstrated in studies. A 2020 study of 3,311 RA patients (1,012 former smokers, 887 current smokers and 1,412 who never smoked) found that current smokers were more likely to have moderate or high disease activity compared with former and never smokers and that quitting smoking is associated with lower RA disease activity.

Smoking can also make it more difficult to exercise, which is an important part of managing arthritis symptoms.

Avoiding injury and joint trauma

While regular exercise is important for managing arthritis, participation in sports such as soccer, football, long-distance running and weight lifting may increase the likelihood of knee OA because of the risk of joint trauma.

Actions such as twisting, turning and jumping can cause heavy force to the knee joint that when accumulated over the years may play a role in joint degeneration.

“We know that cartilage can accommodate a slowly applied load better than an impact load which can cause injury if above a certain threshold,” Dr. Chowdhury says.

“That being said … as long as one avoids trauma, regardless of whether there is pre-existing disease or not, moderate exercise does not accelerate knee osteoarthritis and is actually associated with better physical functioning and reduction of pain and disability,” Dr. Chowdhury says.

A health care provider, physical therapist or certified personal trainer with experience working with people who have arthritis can help create an exercise routine that’s safe, manageable and beneficial.

Keeping up on regular doctors appointments

While arthritis is not necessarily preventable, regular visits to the doctor and health screenings can help to control risk factors associated with arthritis.

“A doctor can have a discussion with you regarding healthy diet and exercise habits and identify underlying issues that may predispose you to arthritis—things like being flat footed or ‘knock kneed’ or ‘bow legged,’” Dr. Chowdhury says.

“These issues can usually be addressed with physical therapy and/or a brace if they are caught soon enough.”

Getting an accurate diagnosis early on and following your treatment plan can minimize symptoms and prevent the disease from getting worse. Seeing a doctor regularly is especially important for certain types of arthritis, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and gout—and for those with other chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

When to See a Doctor

A person experiencing arthritis symptoms should consider seeking care from their health care provider if the following factors occur:

  • Joint pain or swelling lasting three days or more
  • Several episodes of joint symptoms occur within a month
  • Pain doesn’t improve by icing the joint

The sooner arthritis is identified, the earlier a person can begin making lifestyle changes and receiving treatment to manage symptoms.

“Patients need a diagnosis whether or not they have arthritis or another condition that can mimic arthritis,” adds Dr. Van der Ven.

Initial evaluations for arthritis usually involve X-rays, which can be ordered by a primary care provider.

“Once you’ve been diagnosed, a referral to a physiatrist (physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor) or an orthopedic surgeon is reasonable,” says Dr. Chowdhury. Depending on the exact diagnosis and lab results, a rheumatologist referral may also be recommended.

Important Notice: This article was also published at by Nina Chamlou where all credits are due. Medically reviewed by Alyssa Cole Mixon, D.O., M.B.A. 


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