About 50 million Americans are living with some type of arthritis, but despite how common a condition it is, many people — even some who are diagnosed with it — hold beliefs about arthritis that experts say aren’t true.
Misconceptions about who’s most likely to develop arthritis and what foods sufferers should avoid are both common, along with several others.
On the next several pages, doctors who specialize in arthritis treatment set the record straight about arthritis and debunk some long-held myths.
Only Old People Get Arthritis
“That is a really common one, and arthritis obviously doesn’t happen only to older people,” said Dr. Vivian Bykerk, assistant attending rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “It can happen to 1- and 2-year-olds, it can happen to 90-year-olds and to anyone in between.”
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that two-thirds of people with arthritis are younger than 65, and a recent study found that it affects nearly 1 in 250 children.
“The reason people think this is that osteoarthritis tends to happen in older people,” said Bykerk.
The types of arthritis characterized by joint inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, can happen at any age.
Certain Vegetables Can Make Arthritis Worse
Another common myth is that nightshade vegetables, which include potatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, can exacerbate arthritis symptoms. The belief is that a chemical in these vegetables can cause too much calcium to build up in the body, damaging the joints.
But doctors say there’s not a lot of scientific evidence to back up that claim.
“It’s hard to study this relationship, but even though we don’t know for sure, it doesn’t look like clear evidence that these foods can make symptoms worse,” said Dr. Joanne Jordan, director of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center in Chapel Hill.
Recent studies, however, found that nightshade vegetables may actually help keep symptoms in check. According to the Arthritis Foundation’s publication, Arthritis Today, a study found that yellow and purple potatoes may reduce inflammation in men. Another study found that people who consumed high amounts of lutein, a compound in tomatoes, were 70 percent less likely to have osteoarthritis.
There’s Not Much People Can Do to Treat Arthritis
“No one should ever be told, ‘It’s just arthritis,’ or that they should just live with it,” said Bykerk.
While there is no cure for arthritis, there are many available options to alleviate symptoms so people can lead normal lives.
The type of therapy that will bring on the most relief depends on the type of arthritis a person has, because health care providers may approach each condition differently.
There are many more effective options available for rheumatoid arthritis than there were about 20 years ago, making it possible to attack this malady in its early stages.
“We need to be aggressive quickly because we can halt this disease in its tracks,” said Jordan. “We have things like methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine and biologics, and we don’t see the deformities or the level of joint destruction we used to.”
“We can recognize early signs of rheumatoid arthritis, so we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get treatment as soon as possible,” said Dr. Ozlem Pala, rheumatologist at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
There are also numerous remedies available for osteoarthritis, including anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and occupational therapy.
“If it’s an advanced case, there are surgical options such as joint replacements,” said Bykerk. “Having a total hip replacement is a relatively easy surgery, and many people do quite well. If there’s a knee or hip that people are too scared to get replaced, health can go downhill pretty quickly if it’s not dealt with.”
Bykerk added that there are more than 130 different types of arthritis, so the first step toward improving quality of life is to see a specialist and identify what type of arthritis a person has to determine the best treatment options.
“It’s a rare person whom we can’t get feeling better,” she said.
Cracking Knuckles Can Cause Arthritis
Many people crack their knuckles because it helps their joints feel less stiff, but they may have heard it’s a habit that could someday cause arthritis.
There actually have been studies that attempted to evaluate whether cracking knuckles increases the risk of developing arthritis.
“The studies didn’t show any link, so we can’t say there’s any association between the two,” said Jordan.
But according to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, a couple of medical reports found a link between cracking knuckles and injury to the ligaments surrounding the joint or to dislocation of the tendons. Another study found that people who crack their knuckles may not grip items as strongly as people who don’t crack their knuckles.
Exercise Is Bad for Arthritis Sufferers
It’s definitely false that exercise can be harmful for people arthritis, say the experts.
“People become immobilized and tend to be inactive because of the worry they’re going to hurt their joints,” said Jordan.
“It’s better to be active,” Bykerk said. “Studies have clearly shown that people that do their best to go on with their daily lives do better than those who lie in bed.”
Avoiding activity can actually be harmful, she added, because it can lead to muscle loss.
“Exercise helps maintain joint mobility and also helps strengthen the surrounding structures, like the muscles and ligaments, so there can be good support for the joints,” said Pala.
Running may be painful for some people with osteoarthritis, so swimming or cycling may be better, Bykerk said.
“People shouldn’t exercise to the point where they’re in severe pain, but rest is no longer what we recommend,” said Jordan.
“Certain exercises may aggravate pain, but a physical therapist can assess the situation and recommend the best exercises to do,” she said.