As a chiropractor, I deal with patients who have arthritis pretty much every day. Some want answers, some want reasons. In most cases, we can provide both of these.
Many seem to think that past trauma is a factor in developing arthritis. While this is definitely the case, it’s not the cause of most patients’ arthritis. Rather, the bigger cause of arthritis is something that most of us are not aware of but way too many of us in society today are at a high risk for.
But first, a quick overview on the structure of your joints. The surface of all your joints are covered with cartilage that acts as a type of shock absorber to cushion the impact of bone and bone when you move. Cartilage is made up of about 5% chondrocytes (these are the cells that make cartilage), 65-85% water, 15-25% Type II collagen and 2-10% proteoglycans (sugar-protein molecules that bind with water to form a shock-absorbing gel). Since the cartilage-making chondrocytes are sitting inside this cartilage-gel layer, it does not have its own blood supply and needs to get nutrition in and waste products out by diffusion. I describe the situation as a sponge sitting in a puddle. You can stare at it all day long and it’s not going to do any tricks. It’s not until you start stepping on and off of the sponge that you get fluid exchange into the sponge.
This is exactly why exercise is so good for your joints–it keeps the fluid pumping so the chondrocytes have new nutrients to work with. So long as you give your joints good nutrition and combine it with exercise the cartilage in your joints can turn over, although this is a very slow process. On the flip side, give your joints poor nutrition and clog up the arteries that deliver blood flow near the cartilage and it can and will break down faster.
With this understanding of how you can damage your joints, can you think of what other chronic diseases may develop with poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle? While the list is quite long, heart disease is way up at the top. Which brings us to this particular study.
In it, researchers looked at the relationship between osteoarthritis of the hand (which included arthritis in more than a single joint in the hand) and heart disease. Specifically, they looked at 1348 patients with an average age of 62 and asked about painful and stiff joints of the hand backed up by osteoarthritis on X-ray as well arthritis of the hand but with no pain. These patients were then evaluated for their risk of dying as well as vascular events (coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure and/or ischemic stroke). Here’s what they found:
- There was no link between death and arthritis of the hand.
- There was no link between arthritis on X-ray (without pain) and heart disease.
- However, in those who had painful arthritis had a 226% higher risk of having heart disease (as measured by a heart attack or coronary insufficiency syndrome).
These numbers are not anything to downplay. Why there was an association only with painful arthritis of the hand may have to do with the amount of inflammation present, but for now the researchers were not able to pinpoint the reason.
It is far more likely that the lifestyle that leads to heart disease is also a lifestyle that will destroy the cartilage of your joints than the reverse. Because of this, if you are worried about developing arthritis in your future, rather than focusing on your joints, you should start with protecting your heart.