Achy Joints After the Age of 50

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Do your joints feel stiff, creaky, and swollen? Congratulations, you've likely hit the big 5-0. The discomfort associated with getting out of bed, sitting down, or even standing up is something that most people over 50 can relate to. But what exactly is it about turning 50 that amplifies our awareness of these aching joints?

“I tell my patients that 50 is still young,” says Neel Patel, MD, an Orthopedic Specialist at the Adena Orthopedic and Spine Institute. “It’s around age 50 when people start becoming a little more active again...That’s when they go back to things they were doing before, so I think that’s where a lot of people recognize that things hurt.”

Understanding the Aches and Pains

There can be several reasons for these daily discomforts, with the most common being osteoarthritis — a degenerative condition caused when the tissue or cartilage between your bones breaks down, resulting in joint pain. The pain might also be due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory disease where your immune system attacks the lining of your joints, leading to stiff, swollen joints, and symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

Pain essentially results from overuse, underuse, injury, weak muscles, and certain inflammation-triggering foods like nightshades, gluten, dairy, and sugar. For women, menopause can also lead to joint pain, as reduced estrogen levels may increase inflammation.

"It's not a symptom of aging, it's a symptom of activity level,” Dr. Patel clarifies. “You are going to have pain if you're too sedentary and not using your joints enough, or if you're extremely active and overusing them."

Ways to Alleviate Joint Pain

Simple lifestyle adjustments can help protect and even improve the health of your joints. These include:

  • Get Moving: Regular low-impact exercises such as biking or walking can have a protective effect on your joints and even lessen your symptoms.
  • Warm up and Cool Down: Not warming up before exercising can strain and overload your joints. Warm up and cool down for five minutes by gently using the same muscles you'll be engaging during your workout.
  • Lose Weight: Extra weight puts unneeded stress on your joints — especially the knees and hips. Losing just ten pounds can take up to 40 pounds of pressure off your knees.
  • Ditch the Extra Sugar: Sugary drinks can boost inflammation and make you more susceptible to RA. Likewise, eating healthier foods is another smart way to prevent joint pain as you age.
  • Stay Hydrated: Since the cartilage in your joints is mostly water, staying hydrated helps keep your joints lubricated and healthy.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking damages your body, including your cartilage. Long-term smokers can feel aches and pains more intensely, and smoking can affect the ability of certain pain medications to work effectively. Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your health.
  • Sleep Well: Lack of sleep can exacerbate pain. Prioritize quality sleep by maintaining consistent sleep and wake times and winding down before bed with relaxing activities.

Treatment Options for Joint Pain

If your joint pain is affecting your daily activities, consider seeing an orthopedic specialist.

"Most people come for treatment with acute pain after they've started doing something they haven't done in a while or they just started a different activity," Dr. Patel mentions. "Stopping that activity, along with resting it and icing it, usually takes care of it in about half the cases."

If the pain persists, other treatments can include anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen), steroid or gel injections, and minimally-invasive surgical procedures.

Understanding the Connection Between Age and Health

If you're worried about the connection between your age and your health, Dr. Patel emphasizes that they are two distinct concepts.

“Age isn’t determinant on pain,” he said. “It really depends on how healthy you are. A lot of people still think they’re in their 30s, but their bodies don’t agree. Just because you could do 800-pound squats in your 30s doesn’t mean you should be doing them in your 50s.”