Dear Doctor: I am 67 years old, with arthritis in my hands and feet. My daughter recently had a fall, and X-rays showed signs of arthritis in her foot. She’s only 34. What are the most important things she can do to keep it from progressing, or at least slow it down?
Dear Reader: When we talk about arthritis, we’re referring to a range of conditions that result in pain, stiffness and swelling that affects the joints, most often in the hands, feet, hips and knees. Although rare, the inflammation from certain types of arthritis can affect other parts of the body, such as the kidneys, heart, eyes and lungs. Arthritis occurs in people of both sexes, and of all ages, races and body types. It is estimated that up to one-fourth of Americans are living with some type of arthritis, which makes it one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.
The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The former is caused by wear and tear of the joints. The latter is an autoimmune disease in which the person’s own immune system attacks and damages the connective tissues. Both result in similar symptoms, which include stiffness in the morning and after inactivity, pain while walking, localized joint pain and swelling, tenderness or warmth within the joints.
There are several things your daughter can do to manage the progression of arthritis. (And these can benefit you, as well.) One is to maintain a healthy weight, which lessens the daily toll on the joints in the feet, hips and knees. A healthful diet, with an emphasis on lean proteins and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, is important. So is minimizing foods known to kick up inflammation, which includes refined starches, added sugars, red meat and saturated fats and trans-fats.
It may seem counterintuitive, but staying active lessens arthritis pain, keeps joints moving and increases range of motion. Go for joint-friendly exercises that are enjoyable enough to do regularly. These include low-impact options such as walking, cycling, tai chi, yoga, Pilates, swimming and water aerobics. Strength training, which helps to build up the muscles that support your joints, can also be very helpful. However, it’s best for this to be done under supervision, at least in the beginning.
As when adding any new exercise to your daily routine, it’s a good idea to first check in with your health care provider. Which leads us to a final bit of advice: If your budget and health insurance allow, we think it would be wise for your daughter to have at least one visit with a rheumatologist. They can assess her condition, provide her with a baseline from which to evaluate the progression of her arthritis and help educate her on what to expect in the future. If she’s experiencing pain, they can help her explore a range of options to deal with it. The more she knows about arthritis in general — and her condition in particular — the more active she can be in participating in her own care.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.