Health News

Why Our Joints Ache After 50

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t’s all about just wear and tear, but it’s not inevitable

If your body is feeling stiff, creaky, achy and swollen, congratulations: you’ve likely reached the half-century mark. 

If you’re over 50, you’ve probably noticed it. It hurts to get out of bed. It hurts to sit down. It hurts to get up. It seems like there’s pain everywhere. But what is it about turning 50 that makes us so aware of our aching joints? 

“I tell my patients that 50 is still young,” said Neel Patel, MD, an Orthopedic Specialist at the Adena Orthopedic and Spine Institute. “It’s around age 50 is when people start becoming a little more active again because their kids are now in college or they find themselves with more free time. 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.” 

Reasons for the aches and pains

There can be many causes of your daily discomforts, but the most common is osteoarthritis — a wear-and-tear disease caused when the tissue (or cartilage) between your bones breaks down, causing joint pain.

It may also be rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory condition where the tissue that lines your joints is essentially attacked by your immune system, causing stiff, swollen joints that can cause fever, fatigue and loss of appetite.

Whatever the condition, pain is basically caused by:

  • Overuse
  • Underuse
  • Injury
  • Weak muscles

Foods can also cause inflammation, such as:

  • Nightshades (tomatoes, white potatoes, peppers, eggplant and goji berries)
  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Sugar

For women, menopause may also cause joint pain in the knees, shoulders, neck, elbows, or hands. It can also make older joint injuries ache again. Women tend to feel more discomfort in their joints as they get older because there is less estrogen, which helps to reduce inflammation. 

One factor that doesn’t cause joint pain: age.

“It’s not a symptom of aging, it’s a symptom of activity level,” Dr. Patel said. “At the end of the day, it is wear and tear. 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.”

How to lessen joint pain

There are basic lifestyle changes you can make to help protect and even preserve your joints, which can include:

  • Get moving – Regular exercise is one of the best treatments to preserve your joint health. It strengthens your muscles around the joints and improves the flow of nutrients to the cartilage, which takes the pressure off of them. Low-impact exercise 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 you exercise can put your joints at a higher risk of strain and overload. Warm up and cool down for five minutes by slowly working the same muscles you’ll be using during exercise. 
  • 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 – The cartilage in your joints is mostly water. Staying hydrated keeps your joints lubricated and healthy.
  • Quit smoking – Smoking does damage to 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 it off – A lack of sleep can make the pain worse. Make quality sleep a priority by going to bed and waking up at the same time and turning off your smartphone an hour before bed. You can also do things before bed to help you relax, like taking a bath or drinking warm tea.

Treatment options for joint pain

Pain isn’t necessarily part of the aging process. If your joint pain is affecting your daily activities, it may be time to see 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 said. 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 (such as ibuprofen)
  • Steroid or gel injections
  • Minimally-invasive surgical procedures

Know your age (even if it’s just a number)

If you’re concerned about the connection between your age and your health, Dr. Patel says they are two separate things. 

“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.”