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The Cost of Arthritis on Gen Xers

Generation X is beginning to face some of the challenges of getting older. Among those is osteoarthritis, and it comes with a high cost. Osteoarthritis, or OA, is the most common type of arthritis, and it currently affects more than 30 million adults in the United States.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Anyone who overuses or injures their joints may be at an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis as they get older. It can affect any joint, but the most commonly affected areas are the hips, knees, lower back, neck, small finger joints, and the joints at the base of the thumb and big toe.

Cartilage is the cushioning that covers the ends of our bones, allowing our joints to move and slide smoothly as we use them. In OA, this cushioning breaks down, leading to pain, swelling, and lack of mobility. Over time, the bones in the joint can break down. This leads to bone spurs and chips of bone or cartilage that float around in the joint, causing further damage. When the cartilage is completely worn away, bone rubs against bone. At this stage, the options for treatment are pain relief with medication or joint replacement surgery.

Health Care Expenses and Lost Wages

In 2013, the total cost of arthritis was more than $300 billion, according to the CDC. That includes $140 billion in medical costs and $164 billion in lost wages—often, people with arthritis become unable to work.

Those numbers are expected to balloon as Generation X ages and the population grows. By 2040, it is estimated that more than 78 million adults will have arthritis. That’s more than 25 percent of the total projected adult population. Two-thirds of those diagnosed will be women. And the CDC estimates that more than 34 million of those people will have activity limitations due to arthritis. These projected numbers don’t count the effect of increased obesity in the population, which may lead to still greater numbers affected by this disease (obesity is a risk factor for osteoarthritis).

OA Affects Quality of Life

OA comes with other, less tangible costs, namely, pain, activity limitations, and reduced quality of life. There is no cure for this chronic disease. It is often accompanied by pain of two kinds: a constant, background aching, and intermittent, but intense, pain. People with OA may restrict their activities to avoid this pain. OA can also interfere with sleep, disturb your mood, and cause fatigue.

Knee OA in particular can cause difficulty walking or climbing stairs—up to 80 percent of people with OA have some limitations in movement. There are 14 million people in the United States with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, and nearly two million of them are younger than age 45.

People with OA are almost twice as likely to miss days at work compared with people without it, at a cost of more than $10 billion in the United States. In one study, people with knee OA said they missed more than 13 days of work due to health issues.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

There are several risk factors for developing OA. Obesity and joint injury are the two biggest, and the good news is they are avoidable. Experts estimate that addressing both could reduce knee OA by as much as 70 percent.

High-impact sports such as weightlifting, long-distance running, soccer, and wrestling are associated with an increased risk for knee OA, and participating in elite-level, high-impact sports including soccer, handball, and hockey, increase the risk for developing hip OA. However, it’s difficult to determine how much of the increased risk is from sports injury or participation. Structural hip deformities can also lead to early-onset hip OA.

Younger Adults, Take Heed

Hip and knee OA can affect younger adults (those younger than 45 years). The chronic pain and mobility limitations that affect everyone with OA can be especially devastating for younger adults who may have an active lifestyle, be athletes, have young children, or have a physically demanding job.

Treatment for OA in younger adults focuses on exercise, education about the disease, and weight management. While high-impact activities may need to be avoided, a physical therapist can help create an exercise plan that will challenge you while taking your limitations into account. Exercise has been shown to reduce pain and improve function for both hip and knee OA. Strengthening the muscles surrounding the joint can help manage symptoms. And if you have a knee injury, getting timely, effective treatment to help you recover is important to reduce your risk of developing OA in the future.

An occupational therapist or vocational rehabilitation specialist may be able to help you adjust and manage your work tasks given any physical limitations due to OA. When all other treatment has been exhausted, surgery may be considered—either a joint-conserving surgery or a complete joint replacement surgery, may be needed. For younger adults, discussing joint replacement with your physician is important, because there is a greater risk for eventual failure of the replaced joint if you are younger than age 55. While high-impact activities like tennis and jogging are generally not advised after joint replacement, other sports like cycling, swimming, and golf may still be possibilities.

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