If your joints sometimes hurt, it may be worthwhile to take a look at your weight. Even carrying a few extra pounds puts pressure on your joints, especially those that bear the most weight like the knees and hips. According to rheumatology experts at the Mayo Clinic, “Every pound of excess weight exerts about 4 pounds of extra pressure on the knees. So, a person who is 10 pounds overweight has 40 pounds of extra pressure on his knees; if a person is 100 pounds overweight, that is 400 pounds of extra pressure on his knees.”1 As a result, it is not surprising that the joints can take a real pounding even when doing normal activities like walking.
What joint-related conditions are influenced by excess weight?
Being overweight or obese is a contributing factor to many conditions related to the joints. These may include:
- Joint Replacement–Over time, too much weight can break down the cartilage that cushions a joint, sometimes leading to a full or partial joint replacement. This is seen most often in the knee, hip, or ankle. Obese patients account for 1/3 of all joint replacement surgeries.2 Naturally, recovery from joint replacement surgery is more complicated if excess weight continues to be placed on the repaired joint.
- Joint Malformation–Pain in the pelvis, feet, and spine may be the result of too much weight bearing down on the joints, potentially causing a malformation in these structures.
- Osteoarthritis (OA)–People carrying excess weight are at more risk of developing OA, a degenerative joint disease. There is greater wear and tear on the weight-bearing joints, which can result in greater inflammation and faster deterioration of the cartilage and bone in the joint.2 In fact, an obese person is almost 60% more likely to develop arthritis than a person of normal weight, and the incidence of OA has dramatically increased in the past few decades.3
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)–RA is an autoimmune disease that can lead to joint-deforming arthritis. Like OA, being overweight or obese (with a Body Mass Index greater than 30) adds stress on the joints, but excess body fat also produces proteins called cytokines. These cytokines cause inflammation, which can destroy the tissue that helps protect the body’s joints. As a result, the amount of fat a person has directly correlates to how severe a person’s RA symptoms may become.
Can excess weight be harmful to children’s joints?
Unfortunately, these joint-related conditions are not exclusive to adults. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)4 states that about 32% of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese. The extra stress on their joints can damage their growth plate, which is the cartilage tissue at the end of bones that is still growing. These growth plates determine a child’s final body shape and height, so being overweight may result in issues with “bone growth, musculoskeletal health, deformity, pain and, potentially, a lifetime of limited mobility and diminished life quality.”
Overweight or obese children and adolescents also can develop these serious joint-related conditions:
- Higher Risk of Bone Fractures–The risk of fracture is increased due to excess stress on the bones and a lack of physical activity to strengthen the bones.
- Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis (SCFE)–SCFE is a condition in which the ball in the hip joint at the end of the thighbone slips backward, partially off of the thighbone. It is caused, in part, by excess pressure on the growth plate. The pressure causes the part of the thighbone just below the growth plate to slip up and forward without moving the ball from the hip socket. Severe slips can damage blood flow to the hip tissue, which may result in tissue death.
The Hip Joint
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- Blount’s Disease–Blount’s disease is a condition that causes the legs to bow, often the result of increased pressure on a child’s growth plate. A brace is sometimes used to correct the deformity, but surgery often is necessary. To lose weight and help avoid joint-related medical conditions, the AAOS recommends that children eat a healthy diet combined with at least 30 to 60 minutes of physical exercise each day.
Does losing weight impact joint health?
Luckily, just as weight gain is detrimental to joint health, losing weight can have the opposite effect. In one study it was found that being just a little overweight dramatically increased the risk of developing OA, but losing just 11 pounds decreased the risk by almost half.3 Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program but, in general, follow these guidelines to start losing weight4:
- Reduce your fat and calorie intake. Try to eat meals that are full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary drinks that are high in calories.
- Get more physical activity and exercise. If you have constant hip or knee pain, you may not be as active as you were before. Low-impact activities like swimming, biking, or using an elliptical machine, put less strain on your joints than strenuous exercise and are still effective in helping you lose weight.
By making a few lifestyle changes to your diet and exercise, you will start losing weight and maintain healthier joints in the process.