Obesity is Harmful to the Joints
What if we prevented obesity? Would the occurrence of joint osteoarthritis be eliminated? Probably not; other factors like joint injury also contribute to the cause of arthritis. However, the sheer number of joints deteriorating rapidly would decline if less people were obese. For now, the aging, obese population is presenting with a deluge of joints in pain. Which joints take the brunt of the heavy burden? Most of the major joints that are involved in large movements bear the majority of the weight like the shoulders, knees and hips. The more pounds packed on, the faster the joints wear down because excessive weight is harmful to the joints in more ways than one.
Starting with the all important shoulder which holds up an anchor called the arm; people who are obese are much more likely to develop shoulder pain at some point. The pain is usually caused by arthritis and/or a rotator cuff tear. One lesser known fact about shoulder function in someone who is excessively overweight is that the range of motion available to the shoulder is diminished by nearly 40%. With less ability to move the shoulder, abnormal postures are adopted and contribute to abnormal wear-and-tear on the bones, ligaments and tendons. Eventually, something tears like the rotator cuff. As if this rapid deterioration of the joint was not enough, surgery to repair a damaged shoulder joint like rotator cuff repair or joint replacement is more likely to fail in someone who is obese. Obesity causes problems for the shoulder in more ways than one.
The shoulder is not the only joint that suffers from excessive weight or load. The knee is also severely impacted by obesity. Knee osteoarthritis is the most common chronic painful condition in Americans over 50 years of age. Some say that a majority of these cases could be prevented by preventing obesity early in life. And that the best way to solve knee osteoarthritis is to unload the knee. Not only does a heavy load affect the knee, but range of motion is also affected by obesity. Like the shoulder, the knee’s ability to move is reduced by the presence of excessive weight. The result of excessive load and restricted movement is pain. Knee pain is contributing to a substantial loss of quality of life in many individuals in today’s society much more so than before the obesity epidemic started.
Joint pain caused by obesity does not stop at the shoulders or even the knees. The impact from obesity is also seen at the hip that has an anchor attached to it called the leg. One in four people experience symptomatic hip osteoarthritis. Just about everyone knows someone who has had a hip replaced. The youngest individuals needing hip (or knee) replacements usually have been overweight most of his/her life. Additionally, the surgery that amputates the bad hip and replaces it with an artificial hip is more likely to result in failure or complications in those who are fat, morbidly fat (BMI >35 kg/m).
Even if one was have a “biggest loser” event and shed a tremendous amount of weight just prior to surgery, it would probably be too late. The joint damage is already done. Obesity early in life leads to osteoarthritis in the future. And right now, our future is grim. The fat children (and the parents) better pay attention. Much more is at stake than the shoulders, knees and hips which suffer greatly from excessive weight. The entire muscle and skeletal system cannot bear the burden of America’s life-style habits any longer. America needs to wake-up and smell the seaweed, quinoa, farro, fruits and vegetables. America needs to shape up or be prepared to suffer the consequences of joint osteoarthritis.
Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.