Obesity Epidemic Worsening Osteoarthritis

Obesity Epidemic Worsening Osteoarthritis
Overweight woman with knee pain | Image by Shutterstock

Research recently presented to the International Congress on Obesity (ICO) showed that even small amounts of excess weight can damage your knees and raise the likelihood of needing a knee replacement.

Researchers found that just 11 pounds of additional weight can cause pain, stiffness, mobility challenges, and a statistically-significant increase in the need for knee surgery, 34% for women and 25% for men.

Even though 11 pounds seems like a surprisingly low threshold, the United States’ current obesity crisis is weighing heavily on the matter, contributing significantly to knee replacement procedures.

As previously reported in The Dallas Express, about one-third of Americans are currently considered obese, and roughly half could be by 2030 if current trends continue.

Obesity is clinically diagnosed by identifying a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI), a metric signifying a particular proportion between height and weight. Studies have shown that while average height fluctuates a small amount over time, Americans are clocking steady weight gains among men and women, potentially causing real pain in the nation’s knees.

The ICO presentations last month took into account two studies involving over 250,000 subjects and a survey of over 20 studies focused on the correlation between weight gain and knee osteoarthritis.

Researchers found that as a subject’s weight increased, symptoms and radiographic scans revealed worsening osteoarthritis. A lead researcher in the study, Dr. Anita Wluka, explained, “In other words, osteoarthritis was more likely to develop with weight gain and to progress more quickly.”

With over 32 million Americans suffering from degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, according to the CDC.

Colloquially known as the “wear and tear” disease, osteoarthritis is driven by the degradation of cartilage separating bones in a joint. As the cartilage breaks down, bones no longer enjoy a cushion between one another, leading to aggravation from rubbing together.

Dr. Benjamin Bengs, an orthopedic surgeon and director of special surgery at the Center for Hip and Knee Replacement at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, said doctors have long known about the correlation between weight and arthritis. Still, the latest findings add “compelling data in support of this association.”

Bengs said people often underestimate the stress we place on our joints.

“Knees not only have to withstand the weight of the body but also the force of muscles acting, as well as mechanical moments, which can double the load on the knee joint. And that is just for one step,” said Bengs. “Consider how many steps we take in the course of a day, a year.”

While physical therapy and medication can help ease pain and stiffness, there is no cure for the disease. Ultimately, some people make the tough decision to undergo knee replacement surgery, whereby arthritic areas of the joint are replaced with metal, plastic, or even ceramic parts.

Over 750,000 knee replacements now occur in the United States annually.

While the latest findings may be discouraging for some, the results further underscore the importance of weight management. The authors of the ICO research report recommended weight gain prevention should be prioritized in the medical community, as it is generally viewed as easier to avoid gaining weight versus losing existing weight.

Mallika Marshall, M.D. and contributor to CBS News, agreed with the authors’ conclusions.

“Knee replacement surgery is not trivial. It can be expensive, the recovery can be long, and some people require a second operation to control their pain,” Marshall said. “So, it’s important to try to avoid knee replacement surgery by maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise.”

Local dietitian Isabella Ferrari spoke to The Dallas Express back in September, noting that a lack of nutritional education and people valuing convenience over putting the work into cooking a healthy meal has helped contribute to the present situation.

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