Most of us expect a few aches and pains as part of the natural aging process. However, osteoarthritis in women cripples far too many females who still have much life remaining to live.
Osteoarthritis refers to the gradual wearing away of the cartilage protecting our joints when they rub against each other. When this cartilage shrinks, significant soreness and discomfort accompany everyday movement. While no cure currently exists for osteoarthritis, a combination of medication and alternative therapies can help ease the pain.
Why Is Osteoarthritis in Women More Common?
Women suffer from higher rates of osteoarthritis for several complex and interrelated reasons. One reason why women experience higher levels of osteoarthritis than men deals with hormones, and in particular estrogen. Rates of osteoarthritis in women soar in the years immediately following menopause when estrogen levels drop.
However, even women taking hormone replacement therapy develop osteoarthritis anyway. This leads researchers to believe that more than the hormone levels themselves work to make osteoarthritis more common in women.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University recently examined the role of synovial fluid in the development of osteoarthritis. Synovial fluid helps protect cartilage by lubricating joints. Small vesicles in synovial fluid carry micro-RNA particles, which control the way genes express themselves. Preliminary findings indicate that fluctuating estrogen levels result in a change in the amount of synovial fluid available to the joints, and may even direct the body to destroy cartilage tissue.
Another reason women tend to develop osteoarthritis more often than men involves the biomechanics of the body. Women’s wider hips cause the legs to taper down, and this leads to greater instability in the knee area, where many women tend to develop arthritis. Men, conversely, often find their hips attacked by osteoarthritis, as they lack the stretchier tendons and ligaments women have that enable childbirth.
Finally, genetics definitely play a role in who develops osteoarthritis. Many women with osteoarthritis find they develop the disease at the same age their mothers did.
Osteoarthritis and Osteoporosis Plague Women
While osteoporosis and osteoarthritis refer to two separate conditions, some use the words interchangeably. Indeed osteoarthritis and osteoporosis usually manifest in a comorbid manner. Osteoporosis refers to the bones in the body becoming porous and brittle, and prone to breakage, whereas osteoarthritis only affects the cartilage women have padding their joints.
Both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis can lead to back pain and height shrinkage as a woman grows older. In order to determine what causes the agony in one’s spine, doctors perform bone density scans. While some theorize that the bone thickening which often occurs in osteoarthritis may inhibit the development of osteoporosis, some women nevertheless develop both of these common diseases.
Daily Living with Osteoarthritis
A diagnosis of osteoarthritis frightens many into thinking they are doomed to a lifetime of pain. While, currently, no treatment protocol exists that can reverse joint damage caused by osteoarthritis, medications and behavioral modification can limit the woman’s suffering.
What’s one step all women with a family history of osteoarthritis can take to delay the onset of the disease? Begin a regular, weight-bearing exercise regimen while still young. Weak muscles around the joints make the cartilage surrounding them work overtime, which can hasten the onset of the disease. Exercise also increases the flow and volume of synovial fluid, which may minimize the effects of osteoarthritis in women.
Women who have already received a diagnosis likewise benefit from regular exercise, but with some modifications to increase comfort levels. Health professionals advise novice exercisers with osteoarthritis to seek out water-based fitness classes. The water supports much of a woman’s body weight, taking the pressure off her joints.
Overweight women should attempt to lose weight to lessen their osteoarthritis pain. The more weight a woman carries, the more pressure the joints need to bear, leading to inflammation and pain. A qualified nutritionist can help women design a healthy weight loss regimen that doesn’t feel like a punishing diet.
What Medications Exist?
Medications for osteoarthritis consist of over-the-counter analgesics, particularly NSAIDs such as Motrin and Advil. Women with severe osteoarthritis may achieve relief from prescription pain medications. Because of the opioid crisis, new regulations limit the ability of physicians to prescribe opioids, but newer drugs developed without narcotics offer promise.
In addition, corticosteroid injections benefit many women with osteoarthritis without the mind-altering side effects of prescription narcotics. Some physicians likewise use hyaluronic acid injections to pad the area surrounding joints and reduce inflammation.
Finally, severe cases of osteoarthritis may require surgical intervention. Even though the prospect of knee replacement and hip replacement surgery sounds scary, many women who go in for such procedures report having a new lease on life and greatly renewed mobility.
Easing the Pain Going Forward
Medical advances hold promise for treating osteoarthritis without surgical intervention. Many practitioners have begun experimenting with biologic medications such as those used to treat other forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, with positive results. As science continues to learn more about how to prevent the human body from breaking down its own tissue, more effective and safer biologics will surely emerge.
Millions of women with osteoarthritis nevertheless live full, rich and healthy lives. With proper treatment and behavioral changes such as beginning an exercise regimen and eating a healthy diet, many women successfully slow the advance of their arthritis symptoms. With new advances, growing older no longer needs to be so painful.