Symptoms of arthritis include pain or tenderness, swelling, warmth and redness in the joints as well as stiffness and difficulty using or moving a joint. The hands and feet are affected first, but as the disease progresses, those symptoms may spread to the knees, elbows, hips and shoulders (Source: Arthritis Foundation).
More than 100 different diseases fall under the term arthritis, the two most common being Osteoarthritis (OA) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). OA is a degenerative joint
disease that is caused by cartilage loss in a joint, while RA is an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation in joints and other body parts including eyes, lungs, skin, blood, the heart and nerves. Other common forms of arthritis are Juvenile Arthritis (JA), which affects approximately 300,000 children under age 16, and Lupus, also an autoimmune disease affecting many organs including the joints.
Although arthritis forms vary, their sufferers are very similar. According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 women have been diagnosed with arthritis compared to about 1 in 5 men. Of the approximately 27 million Americans with OA, roughly 60% are female (Source: Everyday Health). That percentage increases exponentially after age 55, most likely due to menopause. RA affects 3 times as many women as men whereas Lupus affects 9 times as many women (Source: Well).
So, why are women more susceptible to arthritis than men? It could come down to these four reasons.
- Biology: Namely the way a woman’s body is structured. Women are designed to give birth. Consequently, their joints are more elastic than men’s, making them more prone to injury and more likely to develop arthritis. Also, according to Everyday Health, because women’s hips are wider than their knees, their knee joints aren’t aligned as straight as men’s. This poor alignment can cause uneven stress on them, leading to OA later in life.
- Hormones: While the female hormone estrogen may protect cartilage from inflammation, after menopause, when estrogen levels decrease, women lose that protection and may actually have a higher risk of developing OA. Experts think there is a link between estrogen and OA, but the relationship is inconclusive.
- Genetics: OA may run in families, especially among females. Particularly, hand and knee OA have been found to have specific genetic links.
- Weight: This is one risk factor you can control! According to Arthritis-Health, body weight has a direct correlation to the development and progression of joint degeneration. Statistically, more women are obese than men, and because obesity is the most significant predictor for OA, obese women are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
It may seem like you have no control over whether you develop arthritis or not, but that’s not true. Even though your biology, hormones and genetics are fixed, your weight is not. There are a few things women can do to prevent arthritis. First, maintain a healthy weight by eating primarily fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low fat dairy. Excess weight stresses joints causing cartilage to break down more quickly. So, losing extra pounds will decrease inflammation and slow joint degeneration. Secondly, stop smoking. Smoking increases the risk of both OA and RA because it damages blood vessels and rapidly deteriorates cartilage in joints. Third, exercise regularly. Strength training, yoga, Tai-Chi, swimming and water aerobics are all excellent for arthritis. Finally, minimize joint strain at work by taking breaks from repetitive motions and make changes to your work environment to reduce pressure on the joints like using a swivel chair or a sit/stand desk setup.
At present there is no cure for arthritis, but an early diagnosis and treatment plan can minimize joint damage and pain. Seek medical help immediately if you suffer from any arthritic symptoms.