There have been several recent articles in the news regarding osteoarthritis or OA.  OA is a condition characterised by the disruption of the structure (quality) and reduction in the thickness of articular cartilage.  Articular cartilage is the substance that lines the surface of joints.  Articular cartilage has a very low co-efficient of friction, less than rubbing two pieces of ice together.  This means that two plates of articular cartilage on opposite sides of a joint can glide on each other allowing easy, low resistance movement at the joint.  Cartilage also has a weight bearing role.

Disruption of the structure of the cartilage means that its co-efficient of friction increases and movement at a joint affected by OA is impeded.  Reduction in the thickness of the cartilage means that load is not transmitted well through the joint.  This can lead to inflammation, which produces swelling and pain.

The cause of OA is often labelled as ‘wear and tear’.  Many healthcare practitioners tell patients that it is a consequence of old age.  However, the evidence does not support such claims.  There are in fact many fewer true aging changes that one might expect.  Many conditions that are apparently due to advancing years are in fact at least partly due to exposure or lack of exposure.  For example, skin does lose some elasticity as one ages but exposure to sunlight (UVA and UVB radiation specifically) is an environmental factor that also leads to loss of skin elasticity.  Of course, the amount of exposure to sunlight one is subject to will almost certainly increase as one ages.  But it is not due to being older.

OA is not a natural consequence of ageing.  Genetic factors will play a part in whether an individual is more or less likely to experience the condition as will injuries around joints but exposure or lack of exposure to certain factors is more likely to be the cause of OA than simply getting older.

Exposure to inappropriate load is one such factor.  This could be being heavier than one’s frame can support i.e. being over-weight.  As the size of one’s joints does not increase in size when one becomes heavier, the extra load is applied over the same area.  This is inappropriate loading and places forces across the joint that is has not evolved/developed to deal with.  Another cause of inappropriate loading could also be due to exercising to extreme levels and placing forces across joints that one’s body has not adapted to mitigate.  Under exposure to appropriate loading/movement is another factor.  Joints (cartilage) derive their nutrition from synovial fluid, which is secreted into joints by the synovial membrane.  This fluid is moved around and pushed into cartilage by movement and hydrostatic force.  This is generated when moving and exercising.  Not moving and not exercising works against the normal physiology of a joint.

A further factor that is more difficult to identify without expert assessment is quality of movement.  This may be affected by fatigue such as may occur when training excessively or performing a movement over and over again, when one may switch off mentally.  Research has shown that faulty movement patterns are predictive of future pathology/injury.

Synovial joints and cartilage can last a lifetime if you look after them:

  • Stay trim and to a weight that is appropriate for your height.  A reasonable method to determine this is the body mass index (BMI), which is weight in kilogrammes divided by height in metres squared.  A healthy BMI is between 19 and 25 (some muscular individuals may have BMIs of 25-27 and be healthy).
  • Be a life-long exerciser and move on a regular daily, hourly basis.  Don’t remain still for long periods of time.  And move joints through range.  Check out this post for more details.
  • Allow injuries to heal and get them assessed if you feel that they are serious or they persist.  Don’t be the person with the persistently dodgy knee or gamy shoulder.
  • When exercising, or performing repetitive tasks, consider your form and how smoothly you move.  Check out this post for more details.

Please contact Super Fit to find out more on how to keep your joints in good health, weigh loss, injury assessment/treatment and moving well/maintaining good form by clicking here.