Risk factors for osteoarthritis

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Knee pain and swollen joints
Knee pain and swollen joints

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common of all disorders of the joints. The first symptoms usually appear when people are in their forties, and by their seventies 60-70% of people are affected by this disease.

Early on, more women than men are affected, but as people age, OA tends to affect both men and women equally. There’s a strong hereditary tendency, especially when it comes to the hand joints in women. There’s evidence that genes coding for collagen components within cartilage may be abnormal, explaining the family clustering of this condition. OA in the knees and fingers definitely seems to run in families.

The earlier the onset and the greater the genetic factors, the greater the risks of developing OA are. If both of your parents are affected, you will most certainly develop OA.

Repeated microtrauma, which is experienced by people who perform repetitive movements such as operating pneumatic drills, can lead to the onset of osteoarthritis. Some joint fractures and sprains can lead to the onset of OA. This often affects people who take part in contact sport, or sport where the same joints become overused. 

People who are overweight or obese are at risk for developing OA of the knee, but it can take up to 30 years.

Joint hypermobility ("double-jointedness" in layman’s terms) can lead to recurrent stress injuries and early OA of weight-bearing joints.

Recent research suggests that diabetes may be a risk factor for osteoarthritis, as high glucose levels can set in motion a process that can stiffen the joints and trigger inflammation, in turn leading to loss of cartilage. Diabetes almost doubles the chances of suffering from severe ostearthritis.

Reviewed by Dr Stella Botha, rheumatologist at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town (MBChB, MRCP, PhD), November 2017.

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