Research says being overweight can both cause osteoarthritis and make it worse. However, losing weight can lessen symptoms or help prevent the disease altogether.

Weight and Osteoarthritis Pain

Osteoarthritis is a progressive joint disease that causes irreversible damage to the cartilage, bones, and connective tissues of the joints. It is one of the most common causes of disability in people middle-aged and older, affecting over 30 million adults in the US alone.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis include pain, stiffness, and swelling in and around the affected joints, leading to decreased range of movement. Since the disease often appears in the hips, knees, and hands, it can significantly limit patients’ ability to live their daily lives.

Body weight can have a significant effect on the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis and in increasing its severity. According to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, “Overweight women have nearly 4 times the risk of knee [osteoarthritis]; for overweight men the risk is 5 times greater.”

This is likely due to body weight overly stressing joints. (An increase of 10 pounds in body weight can put an extra 30 to 60 pounds of pressure on the knee with every step.) Some studies have also indicated that excess fat raises inflammation levels throughout the body, which speeds up joint degradation.

Weight Loss for Osteoarthritis Management

The good news is that weight loss can help slow or prevent the progress of osteoarthritis.

Since 1998, the NIH has recommended that obese patients with osteoarthritis lose at least 10% of their body weight as part of an effective management plan. Meanwhile, recent research showed that overweight patients who lost as little as 5% of their body weight retained more cartilage and had less joint damage over time, even if they had not been diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

Overall, a 10 – 20% decrease in body weight can provide many benefits, including a reduction in osteoarthritis pain and overall body inflammation, increased ability to exercise (a key factor in protecting joints), and decreased risk for several chronic illnesses (such as diabetes and heart disease)

Beginning Your Weight Loss Program

If you are concerned that your weight may be making your osteoarthritis worse, the first thing you should do is talk to your healthcare team. They will want to know if and how your weight has fluctuated in the past, if you’ve tried to lose weight before, what you tried, and how successful you were. They may also conduct a physical assessment and order some diagnostics, such as blood tests or x-rays.

Together, you and your team will go over all of this information and work out a plan to help you reach and maintain your goal weight. Changes to diet and exercise form the basis of most weight loss plans. Certain diets (like the aptly named anti-inflammation diet) can help lower systemic inflammation. Meanwhile, joint-friendly exercise (like swimming, yoga, or cycling) can get you moving without causing more damage. If diet and exercise are not sufficient, there are also some procedures and medications that can be used.

As with many treatments, the most important factor is consistency. For the best chance of sustaining weight loss over the long term, steady and gradual weight loss is key. However, most people start seeing benefits well before reaching their final goal weight.

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