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Walking the Line

Why are my joints feeling stiff and sore?

Cluster of images: Image of body weight scale with tape measure, and vegetables; image of group of people walking in field; image of group of people doing yoga outdoors; image of a variety of fruits and vegetables; center image says Prevent with a check marked box, and Cure with a box unmarked

If you have been experiencing stiffness, pain, and a decreased range of motion or flexibility in and around your joints, you may have osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis, affecting more than 32.5 million adults in the US. OA was once thought to be simply the result of aging due to the wear and tear our bodies endure over time. Although age is a major risk factor for the development of OA, as it commonly occurs in middle adulthood, with 80% of adults older than 55 years having some amount of OA, it can occur in people of all ages.

However, researchers now know that it is not simply the wear and tear on the joint that puts individuals at increased risk of developing OA. Rather it occurs when the cartilage and other tissues within the joint begin to break down or have a structural change. OA can occur at any joint within the body, although it more frequently occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees, and spine.

What exactly triggers the breakdown of cartilage and tissues around the joints is currently unknown. Nonetheless, it can subsequently damage all areas within and around the joint once damage occurs. In joints with OA, often, there is marked destruction of the cartilage. Cartilage is a strong, flexible connective tissue found in various body parts, such as the ears and nose, and at the ends of bones. Bonus fact, it's even found in the trachea.

But getting back to OA – cartilage protects joints and bones by acting as a shock absorber and reducing friction during movement. When cartilage breaks down, the bone surfaces can become pitted and rough, resulting in pain and further damage to the surrounding tissues, such as the joint's tendons, ligaments, and lining. In contrast, in joints with "normal aging," the cartilage appears thinner and slightly brown but otherwise smooth and intact.

OA is a progressive disease, meaning it is a health condition that will worsen over time, often resulting in a general decline in health or function. This is partly because it doesn't contain any blood vessels. Thus, it doesn't have a good way to get the needed nutrients to heal once it has been damaged, making it very difficult to repair.

Minimize the Risk

Although OA is not something that can be prevented, there are lifestyle behaviors that can minimize your risk of developing it.

Maintain a healthy weight. Additional body weight increases your risk of developing OA. This is in part due to the extra strain placed on joints. Excess body weight can damage not only the joints but also the tissues around the joints, especially the hips, and knees. In fact, overweight men are five times more likely to develop OA of the knee, while overweight women are at four times the risk. Therefore, weight loss will reduce the risk, even when losing small amounts of weight.

Limit added sugars. Diets high in added sugar increase the risk of tooth decay, weight gain, and many chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. However, did you realize it also increases the risk of chronic inflammation?

Researchers have found that individuals who consume a high-sugar diet have more blood-related inflammatory markers. This is likely partly because sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver, which can activate the inflammation processes. However, more research is needed to understand sugar's role in the inflammatory process fully.

With all that said, limiting the amount of added sugar in your diet is important. If you are wondering where to start, start by limiting added sugar to no more than 50 grams daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet/day, as it will offer many health benefits. For added health benefits, consider following the American Heart Association's recommendation to limit added sugar to 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women daily.

Eat foods rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found in plants. These compounds have antioxidant properties that can prevent or delay some types of cellular damage. Additionally, they help reduce inflammation, which plays an integral role in the progression of OA.

Polyphenols are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, herbs, spices, and olive oil. This further supports the importance of consuming at least 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit daily and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables. It also speaks to the value of having a varied eating pattern and consuming foods from all the food groups. 

Closing Thoughts

As we travel together on this wellness journey, you will notice we have many repeating themes. Whether we are talking about osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart disease, physical activity, or any number of the many health topics, they all have very similar messages. And with each stop that we make and the lesson we learn, I hope you will have a deeper understanding of the need to adopt just some of the many lifestyle recommendations placed before us.

It can be very challenging to change our behaviors. This is understandable because we have spent a lifetime amassing our current behaviors and lifestyle. And, let's face it, many of those behaviors bring us a sense of comfort in the short term.

Nevertheless, I want to encourage you to think beyond the short term. Think of a place down the road on your journey in life – to a place where you feel better physically and emotionally than you have in a very long time. You may have had to give up or cut back on some of the simple pleasures you find yourself doing more often than you'd like to admit. However, when less healthy habits are replaced with healthier habits, you will see the health benefits of consistently making those small, simple changes over time. Remember, when it comes to sustaining a healthy lifestyle, consistency truly is key. Until we meet again, I wish you safe travels as we journey toward a life of wellness.

SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.


Osteoarthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Osteoarthritis. National Institute of Health - MedLine Plus.

Role of Body Weight in Osteoarthritis. Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

Added Sugars. American Heart Association.

Does sugar cause inflammation in the body? Medical News Today.