Obesity and Osteoarthritis: The Cruellest of Combinations
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis afflicting nearly 10 percent of all men and nearly 18 percent of all women. OA attacks the cartilage that occupies the joints of the body and causes it to wear away, leaving behind painful disfigurement and turning once vibrant human beings into immobile figures unable to complete even the most basic tasks.
Though there is no cure, many of the causes of this debilitating disease are known and one in particular is taking on greater and greater significance in our increasingly sedentary society: obesity. Here are some stark facts on the global obesity epidemic:
- There are more than half a billion obese adults in the world today.
- The percentage of obese people worldwide has more than doubled since 1980.
- 39 percent of all adults are now overweight.
- Obesity kills more people today than starvation.
- Obesity is on the rise in every corner of the world among all age groups.
- In the near future obesity may well overtake smoking as public health enemy #1.
Given those facts and given that obesity is also the number 1 contributing factor in the development of osteoarthritis it should be no mystery why cases of OA have shot up in recent years. The tragedy of the situation however is this: not only is obesity the number 1 cause of OA in adults, it is also the most preventable cause.
Obesity and Osteoarthritis – The Vicious Cycle
While the relationship between obesity and Osteoarthritis is well-known, what is not so obvious is how one feeds into the other and creates a downward spiral that can make it extremely difficult for the overweight to address either their weight or their OA effectively. The cycle is complex and details can vary from case to case but in general it goes something like this:
- Sedentary lifestyle = Weight Gain – Today more people than ever make their living sitting at a desk staring into a computer monitor. It is one effect of the rise of the service economy. From stock brokers to travel agents to call center workers, people are spending more and more time seated and immobile.
- Fat-laden, Processed Foods = More Weight Gain – At the same time fewer people are engaging in the physical activity they need, fast food restaurants have cropped up nearly everywhere filling the demand for quick, affordable food that tastes great going down but metabolizes poorly and winds up around the waist.
- More Weight Gain = Trouble – Unless steps are taken to arrest the slide, overweight people run a very real risk of becoming obese. Once that occurs they stand a four or five times greater chance of developing osteoarthritis than an individual of normal weight.
- OA = Decreased Activity – Obese people are particularly susceptible to developing osteoarthritis of the knee which can result in them spending ever greater amounts of time inactive. While this is understandable since movement is often a very painful experience for them, the increased inactivity nearly always results in additional weight gain.
- More Weight = More Pain – The increased weight these individuals amass while attempting to avoid the pain associated with standing or walking ensures that any pain they felt before will be magnified next time they attempt to stand or walk.
- More Pain = Even Less Activity – This increased level of pain makes them even less likely to engage in physical activity which leads to still more weight gain.
- Reduced Options = Surgery – As an obese Osteoarthritis sufferer reaches the far end of the pain/weight gain cycle their options become more and more limited. Ultimately, many are faced with a stark choice: have surgery to replace the affected hip or knee joints or never walk properly again. When faced with such a reality it is not surprising so many choose joint replacement.
- Obesity = Surgical Complications – Even if the obese person elects to have his or her knee joints surgically replaced their weight can create significant risk of complication during and after the procedure including but not limited to: increased risk of infection, increased recovery time and the increased possibility the surgically replaced knee will fail under extreme pressures from the excess weight. Another possibility is that the surgeon will refuse to operate until the patient loses weight.
That last point is one that can terrify some obese Osteoarthritis sufferers as they see surgery as their only way back to a useful life. The situation seems like the cureless of catch-22s where you are expected to lose weight before undergoing surgery, yet you are undergoing surgery so you can become mobile and start losing weight. So, is starvation the only option in such a case?
Certainly any obese individual who hopes for meaningful weight loss will have to curtail their food intake. But cutting back doesn’t mean starving and there are still exercise options available that can aid in both losing weight and keeping it off such as:
- Swimming – Swimming is excellent all around exercise and one of the few that does not put excessive downward pressure on hip and knee joints. Find a pool near you and start swimming on a regular basis.
- Low-Impact Walking impairment – Find a nice soft, grassy field or beach and start by going for short slow walks. Gradually increase the length and duration of your walks as you become more acclimated to the activity.
- Yoga – Yoga is also an excellent way to regain flexibility and should be considered a compliment to walking and swimming.
Regardless of weight those afflicted with osteoarthritis should strive to maintain the highest level of overall health possible in order to prevent a difficult situation from spiraling out of control. Keep in mind also that not all obese sufferers of Osteoarthritis started that way. Some became obese only after years of OA-related inactivity.
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