Are Your Knees Aging Prematurely?

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The progressive joint disease osteoarthritis (OA) is becoming increasingly common in women. Repeated stress on the joint due to years of sports, weight gain, injury and other factors are contributing the growing trend of young women in their twenties in painful, end stage joint disease and in need of a surgical fix. In 2000, around 53,000 women aged 20-39 were diagnosed with OA. By 2010 that number more than quadrupled.

This dramatic increase in prematurely aged knees is due in part to a more even playing field. In the 1970’s, after the mandate for equality in sports, women began to participate more heavily in high school and college basketball, volleyball and soccer. The high impact jumping and pivoting place great stress on the knee joints and landing off balance or twisting the knee is an unnatural way can destroy the joint in an instant.

Starting young and specializing in a single sport is particularly hard on the knee, but even non athletes are experiencing the same cartilage deterioration from fitness regimes loaded with highly repetitive motion, like the stair climber or treadmill. Women are three times more likely to develop knee issues than men. So why is this? For one, hormones can make women’s joints more prone to damage. Recent research discovered that the muscles in the knees work differently at different points in the menstrual cycle.

This can destabilize the joint and set them up for injury. Variations in the nervous systems between genders may also play a role. Scientists found that women’s muscles respond to nerve impulses at a much slower rate than men’s, leaving females less likely to react efficiently at crucial moments. Women also tend to land from jumps with their knees pointing towards each other, which places the joint stabilizing anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in danger of tearing.

The Cartilage Connection

Along with causing painful short term damage, ACL injuries are also contributing to the development of osteoarthritis down the road. More than half of the women with an ACL injury will end up developing OA within 10 years. Studies show that female athletes are 8 times more likely to tear their ACL than men, and this number is on the rise.

Damaging the meniscus, the cartilage that cushions the joint, is more common. Some cartilage cannot heal itself and even small injuries can worsen with time and may eventually develop into OA. Tears can be caused by something as simple as squatting and twisting to pick something up off of the ground. It is also possible to have a small injury to the meniscus that goes unnoticed until it develops into a much bigger problem since there are no nerve endings in cartilage.

Preventative Measures

Although OA is not entirely preventable since cartilage breaks down naturally as we age, you can keep it at bay by treating your knee joints well.

One of the biggest risk factors of OA is obesity, so maintaining a healthy weight is important. Even five or ten pounds can strain the joints. Smoking is also a risk factor as cigarettes contain chemicals that damage the cells that keep cartilage healthy. Another major contributor to knee damage is high heels. Even as little as two inches of extra heel causes you to walk with a shorter stride and places added force on the knee.

It is common to experience mild pain occasionally when you work out, but if you notice that you regularly feel pain in the same area of your knee three or more times a week and over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, ice, and a moderated workout regime are not eliminating the pain, it may be time to see a specialist. Other signs of damage include clicking or popping noises, swelling, or a throbbing in cold weather. Injections that halt inflammation and replace fluid in the joint can help ease the pain. Keep your workouts knee-friendly with a variety of movements to reduce wear and tear on the joint. Low-impact workouts such as swimming or the elliptical will build leg muscles while going easy on the joint.

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