Reston Hospital Center - January 01, 2018

Achy knees. Arthritic ankles. Shoulders that sing when you lift the groceries. If you have joint pain and are looking for relief, weight loss can be a drug-free, surgery-free answer. Being overweight raises your risk for developing osteoarthritis (OA), which is joint damage due to wear-and-tear.

With OA, the “cushion” or cartilage within the joints degenerates, so bones rub against each other, causing pain and swelling. The more weight on the joint, the more wear and tear on the cartilage. But that’s not the only issue. Fat tissue creates and releases inflammatory chemicals that cause joint pain, even in areas of the body that aren’t weight-bearing, like hands. While weight loss isn’t easy, it’s a good alternative to pain medication, therapies, and even surgery.

How much weight?

Doctors recommend starting with a modest weight loss goal of 5-10 pounds to get some relief. That small success, often achievable through diet alone, provides motivation to keep going and to add exercise to the mix. Getting to a healthy body weight, a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9, should be a long-term goal. But numerous studies show remarkable symptom improvement in people who were considered obese and lost enough to be considered only overweight.

A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 should be a long-term goal.

How much relief?

Big time relief. Doctors have seen patients with OA pain who were confined to a wheelchair able to walk again, just by losing weight. Even in less-extreme cases, weight loss has been responsible for significant reduction in joint pain. Losing just one pound of weight reduces the impact of four pounds of pressure on the knees!

How can you get moving when you’re already in pain? The answer is water. Swimming, water aerobics, and water walking provide a boost in activity without adding pressure to lower body joints. Physical therapists note that patients who move easier because of reduced pain are more likely to stay active or take up additional activity. This can start a healthy cycle, promoting fitness and continued weight loss.

Is this the end of joint pain?

It’s important to understand the underlying cause of your joint pain before determining if weight loss alone will work for you. Other conditions can cause pain similar to OA, including autoimmune-related arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout. These conditions may require additional treatment. While your body can’t reverse arthritis or regrow cartilage, losing any excess weight can help stressed and arthritic joints feel better and prevent further damage. 

It’s important to understand if weight loss alone will work for you.

According to research led by the Hospital for Special Surgery, patients who had weight loss surgery, like gastric bypass, before joint replacement felt much better than those who only had joint replacement. Weight-loss surgery before joint replacement also resulted in improved outcomes and fewer complications after joint replacement.

If you’ve noticed an increase in your joint pain, or if you're overweight and want to reduce your risk of developing OA, start with a visit to your doctor.

Losing just 1 lb feels like 4 lbs off your joints.

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