Osteoarthritis in Young Adults: Could Arthritis Arise in Your 20s?
- Arthritis is not a condition that only affects the elderly — young adults and children may be affected, too.
- There are many types of arthritis including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile arthritis, and more.
- Though there are several treatment options for people living with arthritis, there is no cure for the condition.
- An arthritis diagnosis can affect a young adult physically, psychologically, and emotionally — it is therefore important to get treatment and support to manage the condition.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arthritis affects 1 in every 4 adults in the U.S. The condition is more prevalent among women than men.
Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., with annual medical care and lost earnings amounting to $303.5 billion.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis and affects approximately 32.5 million adults in the U.S.
Although adults who are overweight or obese are among those most affected by arthritis, the condition also affects children and teens. This is known as juvenile arthritis (JA) and almost 300,000 people in the U.S. have the condition.
In this article, we’ll discuss arthritis that occurs in young adults, how it can be treated and prevented, and the risk factors involved.
What is Arthritis?
Sometimes referred to as joint inflammation, arthritis is a chronic condition characterized by tenderness or swelling in the joints. It typically occurs in adults, but kids and teens may also be affected.
Arthritis may affect both large and small joints including:
- Fingers and wrists
- Feet and ankles
When you have arthritis, cartilage — which is the rubbery connective tissue that protects your bones and reduces friction between them — wears down over time. This causes swelling, pain, and movement difficulties.
Although arthritis has no absolute cure, there are several treatments and lifestyle changes you can make to relieve the symptoms and prevent further joint damage.
What are the different types of arthritis?
There are over a hundred different kinds of arthritis, but the five most common types include:
- Osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Psoriatic arthritis (PsA)
What are Some of the Symptoms of Arthritis?
Irrespective of your age, the symptoms of arthritis remain the same. The only difference is that these symptoms tend to worsen as you get older. This is also because older adults often have comorbidities that make their pain and other symptoms more difficult to manage.
Here are some arthritis symptoms you may experience:
- Joint pain and inflammation
- Joint instability — for example, buckling of the knees
- Tenderness or swelling in the joints
- Difficulty moving joints after a long period of inactivity
- Limited range of motion
- Joints covered by red skin that’s warm to the touch
- Muscle weakness or wasting
- A popping or clicking sound in the joint
Key Point: How Does Arthritis Cause Muscle Wasting?
People with uncontrolled rheumatoid arthritis may experience a loss of muscle and strength known as cachexia.
Because of the pain and fatigue linked to RA, people who have the condition may not be exercising as regularly as they should. This lack of activity can cause muscle wasting.
How Does Arthritis Affect Young People?
Although arthritis is uncommon in young adults, there are kids and teens who have the condition.
Being diagnosed with a painful and progressive condition that causes chronic inflammation can be devastating for a young person — especially a child or a teenager.
An arthritis diagnosis can affect a young person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being in one of the following ways:
- Causing joint pain that makes it difficult to perform everyday tasks
- Limiting your range of motion—which prevents participation in activities such as sports
- Reducing your career prospects
- Making you feel isolated or "different"
- Preventing you from participating in certain social activities
- Making it difficult to exercise, which contributes to developing various health conditions
Although living with arthritis at a young age can be overwhelming sometimes, a good treatment plan and the right lifestyle changes can make a real difference. We’ll speak more about treatment options later.
Why Would I Develop Osteoarthritis at a Young Age?
Also called “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that’s more prevalent in older people and it typically affects the hands, knees, and hips.
However, osteoarthritis is not exclusive to older adults — younger age groups can be affected, too.
Certain lifestyle factors can leave people more prone to developing osteoarthritis. A few of these are listed below.
Being obese or overweight contributes to several health problems, and OA is one of them. When your joints take more strain due to extra weight, they’re more likely to get damaged.
In addition, fat in the body releases proteins that cause inflammation, which increases your risk of inflammatory arthritis.
Those who are overweight may also find it difficult to exercise — and physical activity is one of the best ways to prevent arthritis.
Sitting too much
Inactivity — such as spending too many hours at your desk — can lead to joint stiffness and muscle tightness. This can increase the strain on your joints, making them more prone to injuries that can lead to arthritis.
Additionally, sitting too much can also lead to weight gain — another risk factor for arthritis.
According to the CDC, the average U.S. adult spends between 6.5 and 8 hours a day sitting down. This type of inactivity increases the risk of arthritis as well as other diseases, including cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Injuries to the joints can result in post-traumatic arthritis (PTA), which accounts for around 12% of all osteoarthritis cases.
If an injury does not heal properly, cartilage in the joints can be lost over time, resulting in pain, swelling, and a reduced range of motion.
If you have a family history of osteoarthritis, you may be more likely to develop the condition. Genes have between 35% and 65% influence over whether or not you'll develop OA.
Women are more likely than men to develop OA, and the knees tend to be more severely affected than any other joints.
In addition to all the other health risks of smoking, it also complicates OA.
Studies have found that smokers with arthritis have an increased risk of surgery complications, more severe symptoms, and even death. In addition, treatment methods tend to be less effective with patients who smoke.
Repetitive movements — especially those involved in impact sports — increase the risk of joint injury.
A recent study showed that athletes who participate in ice hockey, handball, and wrestling have a higher risk of developing OA in the hip, knee, and ankle.
What Types of Arthritis Can Young People Develop?
Young adults can get all the main types of arthritis, including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriatic arthritis
There is also a type of arthritis that affects children. This is called juvenile arthritis.
What is Juvenile Arthritis?
Also called juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), juvenile arthritis is a type of autoimmune disease that causes joint inflammation and stiffness in kids younger than 16 years old.
JIA is not a chronic condition, and most children will outgrow it.
Unlike other types of arthritis, JIA is not a result of injuries or wear and tear, but the body’s own immune system attacking healthy joints.
Juvenile arthritis is typically caused by genes and environmental triggers.
The symptoms of juvenile idiopathic arthritis are similar to other types of arthritis, but also include the following:
- Swollen or painful joints after a nap or in the morning
- Inflammation of the eyes
- Appetite loss
- Difficulties gaining weight and/or slow growth
- High fevers
- Swollen lymph nodes
Treatment for JIA
Treatment options for JIA will depend on the severity of a child’s condition, their symptoms, age, and overall health.
A combination of medications, lifestyle changes, physical therapy, and nutrition counseling is typically used to treat JIA.
How Do I Live With Osteoarthritis as a Young Adult?
Osteoarthritis is not a condition young adults expect to be diagnosed with, so it can come as a shock and take some time to process.
The good news is that there are treatment options that can relieve pain and restore some joint movement.
There are a variety of treatment options available for those diagnosed with osteoarthritis. A combination of treatments may be recommended for the best results.
Some treatment plans may include the following:
- Topical and oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain and inflammation
- Using a brace on the affected joints to realign them and prevent damage
- Doing gentle exercises prescribed by a physical therapist as well as having physical therapy sessions
- Using steroid shots (corticosteroids) to relieve pain and swelling
- Using hyaluronic acid shots for pain relief and to aid mobility (joint lubrication)
In addition, there are other, more recent treatments — such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and stem cell therapy — but the Arthritis Foundation does not recommend these treatments. These procedures still need standardization, and their efficacy has not yet been proven.
Ask for support
The emotional and psychological impact of an arthritis diagnosis can turn a child or young person’s life upside down. It can also affect their parents and other loved ones.
It’s important to surround yourself with people who will be supportive and understand the challenges you’re facing.
Some tips for young people living with arthritis include:
- Joining online support groups and associations: Here you can connect with other young people who have arthritis and also find more resources that can help you understand the condition.
- Getting enough rest: Fatigue, pain, and muscle weakness are symptoms that often appear alongside arthritis, so getting adequate rest is very important.
- Prioritizing self-care and mental health: It’s okay not to say yes to every invitation and to spend some time by yourself, doing the things that make you feel refreshed and fulfilled. These activities include spending the day at home, running a warm bath, or listening to music.
- Talking to your friends and family: As with any other health condition, you’ll have good and bad days. Communicate your feelings to the people closest to you. Speak up if you’re not okay.
What Are Some Ways to Prevent Osteoarthritis When You Are Young?
Osteoarthritis may be incurable, but there are many things you can do to guard against the condition.
Some ways to prevent osteoarthritis — and other forms of arthritis — include:
- Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight
- Doing gentle exercises and stretches that don’t damage the joints
- Being mindful of how you perform physical tasks, especially how you lift and carry heavy objects
- Quitting smoking and eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Avoiding repetitive motions or sitting too much
Where Can I Learn More About Osteoarthritis?
Have you been experiencing one or more of the symptoms mentioned in this article? You can meet with a board-certified doctor or nurse from your smartphone, computer, or tablet. Head over to LifeMD.com to make your first appointment.